Millions travel to our national forests, parks and wilderness areas each year, with visitation in July 2010 to Yellowstone National Park marking an all-time high. What some may not realize is that each of us - every citizen of the United States - owns a stake in approximately 650 million acres of the nation's lands. In effect, the property deed for almost one-third of our country lists the American people as owners. We'd better take care of it.
On Sept. 25, the congressionally chartered National Environmental Education Foundation will oversee National Public Lands Day, to commemorate our mutually owned acreage and to inspire us to visit and appreciate these places. But the event is not only a celebration, it's an opportunity to take care of what we own, just as we mow our yards, rake leaves or tend our gardens.
True, 650 million acres is a lot to look after. And one day simply isn't enough, even with all of us pitching in and giving back to our sources of camping, fishing, hiking and hunting. That's why we hire dedicated people in the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management to help us care for it. Year round, these stewards administer the vast and varied landscape in the public to interest, based on guiding laws such as the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Over this past summer, while many of us vacationed in our parks and wilderness, officials from the Obama administration toured the country, visiting small towns and big cities, to hear firsthand what Americans want for the future of our public lands. In places from Albuquerque to Concord and Missoula to Orlando, people shared their ideas. This effort, termed "America's Great Outdoors listening tour," will culminate in November with a report and recommendations to President Obama, based on lessons learned about how best to be good stewards of our public land.
It's a big job, and an important one. Not only are we, and our public stewards, taking care of places like the Grand Canyon or the Everglades today, we're also trying hard to make sure we leave them in good shape for future Americans. President Teddy Roosevelt said, "The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value."
According to historian Douglas Brinkley, Roosevelt believed that "saving natural wonders, wildlife species, timberlands and diverse habitats was a patriotic endeavor."
Inspired by citizen involvement from the ground up, our elected representatives and senators in Congress can continue carrying out that duty. They are working on legislation - which could be enacted this year - to protect an additional 2 million acres, across more than a dozen states, as wilderness, national monuments, conservation areas and recreation areas. These legislative measures are backed by hunters and anglers, business owners, city councilors and county commissioners. They are championed by members of both parties.
We can bequeath to future generations spectacular wonders with evocative names such as the Pioneer Mountains in Montana, Gold Butte in Nevada, Horse Heaven in Oregon and the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. If we succeed, we fulfill an American tradition, providing special places to enjoy on this National Public Lands Day and those that will be celebrated by our children and grandchildren.
Mike Matz is director of the Campaign for America's Wilderness at the Pew Environment Group. Readers may send him e-mail at mmatzpewtrusts.org.