There are many symbols of America. The bald eagle. Uncle Sam.

But none is more inspiring than the vast tracts of wilderness that symbolize the wide openness of our democracy and the rugged individuality of our national character.

Forty-five years ago the Wilderness Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. What a great day that was for Americans. With the stroke of a pen millions of acres of wild and free country were preserved for generation after generation of Americans to explore and treasure.

Originally, the law protected 9 million acres in 54 wilderness areas. Today, after passage this year of the bipartisan Omnibus Public Land Management Act, designated wilderness areas cover 109 million acres in 758 areas in 44 states.

Another statistic: 6,000 acres of open space are lost to development of some sort every day in the United States. So the preservation of as many wild tracts as possible is important to expanding the legacy the act created.

Preserving these lands also contributes to cleaner air and water as well as keeping complex ecosystems intact.

Another remarkable thing about the federal wilderness preservation program — it’s one of the few issues that has consistently enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington. These days, that’s refreshing.

Every president since its inception has signed laws that increased the country’s wilderness holdings. President Reagan, in fact, signed more wilderness protection laws than any other president.

Today as we celebrate Labor Day, we should celebrate passage of the Wilderness Act too, by taking a walk on the wild side somewhere.

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