This time of year in the United States, we not only celebrate our country’s independence, but also our unique American identity—an identity rooted in the nation’s iconic lands, waters and wildlife.
The very word “America” conjures images of eagles soaring above forest canopies and bison roaming across grassy plains. Or, we think of hardworking farmers, ranchers and fishers who built their legacies on America’s natural heritage. We even sing of purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain. America’s identity, its people and its way of life are inextricably tied to nature.
So, it is fitting that many of us celebrate this time of year by visiting public lands. For me, that often means heading to a wildlife refuge to watch the beauty and wonder of birds. For others, it means heading to a national park with families to hike or camp. And for others, it means a time of reflection along a national seashore, contemplating the rhythms of the ocean and the life within it.
Whatever your choice might be, that’s what those lands are for. They are there for all to enjoy. These opportunities spring from the wisdom of earlier generations of Americans who recognized and agreed upon the need to protect these places for present and future generations.
In my eight years serving in the Department of the Interior, I was often awed by the complex task of managing our public lands. These places bring so much to our nation—resources, recreation, rejuvenation and more. Managing these lands and waters present tremendous challenges, as we strive to balance the needs for energy, water, food, and recreation, while conserving wildlife, their habitats, and the cultural places that tell the stories of our nation. Meeting these challenges requires investments, yet those investments are at risk as the nation navigates the realities of tight budgets at all levels of government.
Yet I am optimistic. The United States has a long, bipartisan tradition of conservation in sustaining our lands and waters for present and future generations. When Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872, it was the first national park on Earth. It was an idea that set us apart from other nations and continues to be a fundamental part of our identity.
In later years, in good times and bad, conservation continued to enjoy broad support even as it evolved to serve broader needs, such as protecting clean water resources and preserving wildlife. More recently, the urban park movement has been driven by the understanding that all citizens—no matter where they live—should benefit from nature.
Federal, state and local parks, wildlife refuges and forests have been created in every state, under every administration, through bipartisan action and with the sponsorship of members of Congress of every point of view.
Most Americans believe in this American idea—that a portion of our nation’s wealth should be used to invest in protecting special places.
Several years ago, we put this idea to the test with a bipartisan poll and found that overwhelming majorities of Americans of all political persuasions believe that “conserving the country’s natural resources—land, air and water—is patriotic.” That included more than three-quarters of Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike. And, 77 percent agree that “One of the things our government does best is to protect and preserve our national history and natural beauty through national parks, forests, and other public lands.”
History has shown that from our nation’s founders, across centuries of different leaders, nature continues to unite us. We all need healthy lands, clean water and clear air, so supporting these resources is something Americans across race, politics, class and other lines can work together to support.
I hope you all get outside to enjoy America’s public lands, and I hope as you do that, you’ll take a moment to be grateful for the long tradition of Americans coming together around nature. Let’s honor that tradition as citizen stewards and by encouraging our government leaders to do the same.