This Saturday, Sept. 24, marks a day of importance for our nation, although one not marked on many Americans’ calendars: National Public Lands Day. Each fall thousands of volunteers and several government agencies join together for a day of caring for and enhancing public lands.

This year, the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program is encouraging churches and individuals across the country to join the effort as an act of faith rooted in Scripture. In the Book of Leviticus, God directs the Israelites to care for the land: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.” (Lev. 25:23-24, NRSV).

Wilderness and wild landscapes are deeply woven into Christianity and many other faith traditions. They were central to the spiritual journeys of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad and in the creation stories of many cultures.

Today, public lands are important to many of us as a venue for peaceful reflection and reconnecting with the Creator. They also embody ideals important to many faith traditions: equitable sharing of resources, consideration of the common good, and stewardship of God’s creation.

Whether or not we view public lands from a faith perspective, they are, in the words of author Wallace Stegner, “part of the geography of hope” for our nation.

National parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness and conservation areas offer us a unique opportunity to celebrate and protect the lands God has entrusted to us. Amid cities and highways, public lands serve to connect natural ecosystems–offering sanctuary for humans and wildlife and leaving space for natural cycles.

National Public Lands Day is an opportunity to celebrate the special places we have set aside for our common future. But it is also a day to examine the threats faced by remaining wild places, including overzealous energy development; irresponsible grazing practices; over-cutting of timber; urban sprawl; and careless off-road vehicle use.

These are not distant, abstract dangers, but real threats evident in recent news stories and government actions. Examples abound:

–The repeal in May of the federal rule protecting roadless areas in national forests, which spurred lawsuits by New Mexico, Oregon, and California.

–The flood of permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for natural gas drilling on public lands–so many that they’re outstripping the industry’s supply of labor and equipment.

–Provisions in the recently passed Energy Policy Act exempting construction activities related to energy development on public lands from the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts.

–The leak of an Interior Department proposal to abandon preservation as the “primary mission” of the National Park System and allow more off-road vehicles, weakened air and water quality standards, and increased commercial activity in parks.

This year on National Public Lands Day, let us roll up our sleeves and join in service and thanksgiving for public lands. But let us also pause to reflect on the shared duty of all citizens to care for these special places–and to call on our elected officials to ensure that public lands are protected.

Bob Edgar is general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

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