Land sustains us — both physically and spiritually. Nothing can be truer here in wild and wonderful West Virginia, where we are blessed with a treasure trove of public lands.
West Virginia has three national forests, eight state forests, 37 state parks and 77 wildlife management areas, along with six National Park Service sites, including Harpers Ferry and New River Gorge. Together, we citizens share these treasures as a privilege to enjoy and a responsibility to safeguard.
These parks and the other public lands in West Virginia and across the country safeguard God’s ecological bounty and provide critical “re-creation” opportunities by allowing us to commune with God on the land.
Parks in West Virginia also help tell our collective stories. From Harpers Ferry to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, in West Virginia, to Bears Ears, in Utah, preserving special places can protect our cultural heritage and our spiritual practices.
Most of our public lands are outdoor settings that any citizen can visit at minimal or no cost without being shut out by a “no trespassing” sign. To quote Woody Guthrie’s famous song, “This land is your land, this land is my land ...”
On our public lands, we can participate in “nature’s cathedrals” that inspire and draw us into communion with God. On our public lands, we can take respite from the noisy, frenzied world of plastic, steel and concrete to be refreshed, healed and put back together. Our conjointly owned and shared public lands testify that we are a varied and diverse people united in one nation.
Our precious public lands in West Virginia not only display the wonder of God’s creation but also are a treasure chest for the West Virginia economy. More than 71,000 hunters, 156,000 birdwatchers, hikers and nature photographers, and more than 300,000 anglers recreate on our public lands and waters each year. The economic impact of expenditures for travel and equipment associated with wildlife recreation on public lands is about $350 million annually.
Unfortunately, threats to our public lands are increasing. This month marks the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s executive order to review national monuments. This led to the sizable shrinking of two of our nation’s prized national monuments — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Both of these monuments have enormous ecological value and, in the case of Bears Ears, are spiritually significant to the five tribes that requested the national monument designation.
National monuments are designated through the Antiquities Act to protect existing federal land so that every American can enjoy these open spaces, and benefit from their protection. Iconic places like the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty all began as national monuments. These monuments serve as an opportunity to honor our country’s diverse national mosaic and proud heritage while contributing historic, scientific and ecological value. These lands are also valued natural spaces for prayer and spiritual renewal.
In West Virginia, we hold fast to our religious liberty, a right that all Americans, including native people, hold dear. To shrink Bears Ears National Monument, in particular, counters the tenet of religious liberty. I applaud a recent religious letter signed by 17 national organizations that stated, “Protecting public lands is essential in our efforts to steward God’s creation. Protecting revered spaces such as Bears Ears is equally as important as we honor religious liberty.” As a nation, we recognize and celebrate these blessings in the 623 million acres of public lands, which are our collective public inheritance and the legacy we leave for future generations. National monuments like Bears Ears and Grand Escalante-Staircase are part of that American heritage. God’s creation is a gift that, as a Christian, I am privileged and responsible to appreciate and protect. Public lands preserve our cultural heritage while protecting places that evoke in us a reverence for God’s handiwork. That preservation and protection is not just for families today, but an inheritance for future generations.