Anticipation

Christmas Eve is my favorite part of the season.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for staying up with the Lord of Misrule on Twelfth Night to kick off Carnival right, but it’s the quiet anticipation of the night before Christmas that I really treasure.

Whether it’s the impatience to open presents or my eagerness to play in the snow with the dogs, something makes me savor this night more than the rest.  Christmas Eve is quiet.  It’s dark.  The neighborhood takes a break, but the lights on the tree finally twinkle with meaning.

Days finally start to grow longer.  In ancient times, people rejoiced at the return of the sun, and tonight we at least acknowledge the possibility of the renewal of hope and the chance for a rebirth of peace.

Now as 2013 turns to 2014, I acknowledge the same chance for renewal of a small corner of environmental law as we can anticipate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964.

The Wilderness Act creates the greatest protection available to public lands in the United States.  Through an act of Congress, a piece of land can be set aside to be left “untrammeled by man,” to create an open space for people to enjoy for now and for generations into the future.  The Act contains poetic language unusual for a piece of legislation, but the purpose of the law is poetic so it’s fitting.

The Wilderness Act doesn’t inspire much litigation, but in one of the few key cases brought under the Act, Wilderness Watch v. Mainella, the deciding court put the brakes on a shuttle bus offered to visitors by the National Park Service on Georgia’s Cumberland Island.

In addition to wilderness, Cumberland Island, which is accessible only by boat, also hosts historic sites, and the National Park Service, which administers Cumberland Island, needed a way to get visitors from the island’s dock to the historic sites on the northern tip of the island.  Rather than cut off access to the historic landmarks until a new dock could be built adjacent to the site, the Service decided to provide a shuttle for visitors that traveled on an access road through the wilderness previously used by the Service for administrative purposes.

Environmentalists complained that this shuttle violated the Wilderness Act’s prohibition on motorized vehicles in wilderness areas.  The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, while acknowledging the Park Service’s good-faith effort to find a compromise until they could comply more fully with the Act, agreed that the shuttle violated the law.

In winning though, the environmentalists lost.  After the 11th Circuit’s strong defense of wilderness, Congress simply passed a new law redrawing the Cumberland Island Wilderness boundary placing the road just outside of the wilderness and thus allowing the shuttle service to continue.  I’ve seen this outcome described as an example of compromise, but others see it as a clear defeat.  Either way, it demonstrates the risks of litigation.

Nevertheless, the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act is something worth anticipating, because it means that for 50 years now our country has done something truly special.  It means we have the foresight to maintain portions of our environment in a pristine condition for our own sake and for the sake of the environment itself.  I have  a friend who has spent a lot of time in Europe, and he’s commented on how there really isn’t a lot of open space there.  He grew up on a farm in Oregon, so he knows open space.  He says that in parts of Europe, though, you’ll see a cottage or something every couple of miles while traveling through the country.

This Christmas Eve, let’s anticipate the same things we’ve always anticipated, but let’s also anticipate that the courts and lawmakers, that people in general can continue working together in thoughtful ways to hold on to the good things and make others better when possible.  Let’s anticipate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

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