Over the last two centuries, America’s best ideas for protecting our vast lands and open spaces have often arrived while our country has faced its greatest trials.
It was in the midst of our nation’s bloodiest conflict – the Civil War – that President Abraham Lincoln set aside the lands that are now Yosemite National Park.
It was at the dawn of the 20th century, with our cities and industries growing and our open lands and watersheds disappearing, that President Teddy Roosevelt expanded our national parks and set aside the world’s largest system of lands dedicated to wildlife conservation, the national wildlife refuge system.
And it was in the darkest days of the Great Depression that President Franklin Roosevelt put three million young Americans to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps. They built the trails, campgrounds, parks, and conservation projects we enjoy today.
In these moments when our national character is most tested we rightly seek to protect that which fuels our spirit.
For America’s national character - our optimism, our dreams, our shared stories – are rooted in our landscapes.
As Americans, we possess few blessings greater than the vast and varied landscapes that stretch the breadth of our continent. Our lands have always provided great bounty -- food and shelter for the first Americans, for settlers and pioneers; the raw materials that grew our industry; the energy that powers our economy.
What these gifts require in return is our wise and responsible stewardship. As our greatest conservationist President, Teddy Roosevelt, put it almost a century ago, "I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us."
That's the spirit behind the bipartisan legislation I'm signing today -- legislation among the most important in decades to protect, preserve, and pass down our nation’s most treasured landscapes to future generations.
As the President noted, however, there is another hopeful element to the legislation, namely the Christopher and Dana Reeve's Paralysis Act, which boosts research and rehabilitation for paralysis:
That's the mission of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. In the lobby of their facility in New Jersey sits Christopher’s empty wheelchair. And his son, Matthew Reeve, was once asked if the sight of it ever saddened him, and he replied no. He said, "Empty chairs -- that was Dad's goal," he said. "We hope there will be many more of them."
Matthew is here with us today. And the legislation I'm about to sign makes solid progress toward the realization of that hope and the promise of a brighter future.
(President Barack Obama shakes hands with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after signing the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009. White House Photo, 3/30/09, Chuck Kennedy)