BASKING RIDGE, NJ – U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell Wednesday celebrated the 50th anniversary of two landmark conservation laws -- The Wilderness Act and The Land and Water Conservation Fund Act -- at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey.
Jewell was joined by Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe; Congressmen Rodney Frelinghuysen, Rush Holt and Leonard Lance; President of The Wilderness Society Jamie Williams; Vice-President of the Student Conservation Association Laura Herrin; and community leaders.
The two laws, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the same Rose Garden ceremony on Sept. 3, 1964, transformed conservation and outdoor recreation in America, to date protecting more than 109 million acres of pristine landscapes and enabling federal, state and local agencies to undertake more than 40,000 recreation and conservation projects in communities across the country.
Highlights from Jewell’s remarks, as delivered, follow:
“It takes a village to protect a swamp, to create wilderness where there was no wilderness before but where there were birds and species that needed protecting. And I just can’t think of a better place to be than right here at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey to celebrate this historic day…
“…Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, right here, near this urban area, where 80 percent of the population now lives in cities, is a great illustration of bringing, just a taste, of wilderness, a taste of what this country was before we took over so much of it, and what there is at stake and what there is to protect…
“…So in a Rose Garden ceremony 50 years ago today, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act. And if you go in the visitor center, the pen that he used to sign that legislation is displayed there in the lobby. It was one of the most amazing days for conservation in the history of this country. Probably the most amazing day. It was a day when 9 million acres were set aside for wilderness. Places like the Boundary Waters that people think about as so ubiquitous to northern Minnesota, or the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana...
“…Since that time, over 100 million acres of wilderness have been added, including the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge…the first place within the Department of the Interior that was classified as [refuge] wilderness, and not what people expect, which I think is absolutely terrific. Because this land, this land that was developed, that did have utilities running through it, that had structures on it, that was going to be an airport, was permanently set aside, mostly for the critters that call this home with a little taste for the humans that visit to understand what’s at stake.
“…So Interior now has about 70 percent of wilderness lands that have the highest level of protection. So why is that important? And I think back to the time when I was entering the 3rd grade in 1964, when my family could easily go out into the woods and find a tree where all six of us holding hands, could not encircle the trunk of that tree. And over the course of my growing up, those trees disappeared. They were on logging trucks going down the road. And the only place now that I find those trees are in areas that were designated as wilderness or set aside with land protection. Why is that important? Because species need these old growth forests, species need swamps and wetlands, like we never understood at the time that we were developing. We’re now smarter than we were then. These lands are much more special than we recognize.
“So the Wilderness Act, set aside by that incredibly thoughtful Congress, made that happen. So we have something very very special that not only supports tourism and local economies, and I’m sure it supports the areas here around the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge with bird watchers, and people that come out to breath fresh air and feed the soul, but wilderness is also so critical for our future, and our clean water, and clean air, and places that can take the brunt of storms and help make our communities more resilient.
“The Land and Water Conservation Fund helped protect this land here. This visionary Congress, 50 years ago said, “we’re going to develop offshore oil and gas and it’s going to have an impact.” And boy, don’t we understand that after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident. But oil companies have been paying money into the federal treasury to support projects like the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge for the last 50 years. $16 billion has been invested, $19 billion has not been invested because it hasn’t been appropriated by Congress, but it’s been authorized. The Land and Water Conservation Fund turns 50 years old today. It’s going to need reauthorization. And I’m sure our three members of Congress, who are up here, are going to make sure that this Congress takes a step in the right direction with full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
“And I have to say, good for New Jersey. Good for New Jersey to produce three congressmen who are here with us today, who represent bipartisanship, who represent an understanding of the importance of wilderness and land to be set aside for all the purposes I said, but also for hunting, fishing and those lifelong activities that connect people to the outdoors like the young people from the Student Conservation Association wearing the blue shirts who are going to be hanging out a little bit later on and doing a little trail work.
“So, President Johnson said, “No single Congress in my memory has done so much to keep America as a good and wholesome and beautiful place to live as this 88th Congress.” We have moral obligation to build on that legacy. We have dozens of bills with wilderness in them that members of Congress, from both parties in bipartisan cooperation, want to get across the finish line. I know that if we do that, this Congress will be known for many things that the 88th congress was known for, and I hope that we can turn the corner and make that happen so protected places like the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge can continue to grow and exist around the country as we urbanize in a population.
“President Johnson said, “True leadership must provide for the next decade and not merely the next day.” He didn’t realize he was providing for the next half century, not merely the next decade, and I hope that all of us, in celebrating this 50 years of the Wilderness Act will call upon our friends, and colleagues and elected officials to make the next 50 years of wilderness the best yet. Thank you so much.”