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Standing in one of the carefully tended, surviving patches of original America, it’s possible to imagine that long-ago continent: the great plains a rustling ocean of grass; the eastern seaboard a chattering blanket of forest; buffalo by the millions; wolves in every corner, howling. Occupying the same vast horizon, we easily see why the new nation believed its natural resources to be limitless.

They weren’t, and America quickly proved it during its 19th-century westward expansion. By century’s end, alarmed citizens and politicians suddenly realized they could actually use everything up.

In 1903, America began expressly preserving its wildlife when President Teddy Roosevelt set aside Florida’s Pelican Island as the nation’s first bird sanctuary, thereby creating the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). Today, managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS; www.fws.gov), the NWRS includes around 95 million acres, making it the world’s largest system of preserves dedicated to protecting wildlife and habitat.

In 1964 the Wilderness Act was passed to preserve entire, self-regulating ecosystems. The US now has over 700 official wilderness areas totaling over 100 million acres; over half are in Alaska.

However, the most powerful and controversial environmental tool remains the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). Currently, over 1280 plants and animals are listed in the US as either endangered or threatened. Some are mighty creatures like grizzly bears, but most are not so sexy (such as freshwater mussels, chubs and grasses). Since its inception, the ESA has been criticized for obstructing industry and commerce, but never more so than by the Bush administration, whose eight-year mission seemed aimed at rendering the application and definitions of the law essentially meaningless.

Given all the stresses nature is enduring, what is most remarkable is how wild it can still seem. Hiking in a national park or wilderness area – spotting bears and wolves, elephant seals and condors, herds of bison and elk, old-growth redwoods and primordial swamps – is pure joy. These are just the tantalizing highlights.