Sierra Club: The Planet-- 1996
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The Planet
Congress and Public Lands

Because our public lands are federal land, the national conservation policy has been built upon congressional acts or presidential orders:

  • Following John Muir's tireless and eloquent promotion, Congress establishes Yosemite National Park, thereby showing that Yellowstone was not a unique event.
  • Congress authorizes the president to withdraw land from the previously to-be-disposed-of public domain to create "forest reserves." President Benjamin Harrison immediately withdraws 13 million acres in the West.
  • Congress passes the Forest Management Act -- the basic legislation for the National Forest System. There now can be no doubt that the United States has embarked on a new policy of retaining public lands and of setting guidelines for their long-term management and protection.
  • President Theodore Roosevelt designates Pelican Island in Florida as the first national wildlife refuge.
  • The Weeks Act authorizes the re-creation of public land. The Forest Service can now purchase private land to make national forests in the eastern United States, where no public land remains.
  • Congress passes the National Parks Act, establishing national parks as a system and setting policy for their management.
  • After an eight-year debate, Congress passes the Wilderness Act, establishing a National Wilderness Preservation System of wildlands in the National Forest, National Park and National Wildlife Refuge systems.
  • The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act is passed, establishing a national system of rivers protected from dams and channelization.
  • President Richard Nixon signs the National Environmental Policy Act, requiring federal agencies to study the ecological impacts of proposed actions.
  • Congress passes the Endangered Species Act and sets a national policy that we will not cause the extinction of any species.
  • If there has been any lingering doubt about the national commitment to keep a vast heritage of public lands for all Americans, it is laid to rest with the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act. Hundreds of millions of acres of public land not yet withdrawn for national forests, national parks, or national wildlife refuges, are now to be retained in federal ownership under the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM is ordered to study these lands for possible designation as wilderness areas. Like the Wilderness Act a decade earlier, FLPMA is the product of long discussion and many public hearings in the western United States.
  • Congress passes the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Following years of debate and hearings in which thousands of American citizens spoke out, more than 100 million acres of Alaskan public lands are established as new national parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers.

Beside these landmark laws stand dozens of other acts of Congress establishing national parks and wilderness areas.

-- D.F.

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