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In the fight over our national crown jewels, the only crown jewels we Americans have in our non-royal republic, the president blinked. Public lands and the ageless, pristine wild lands they hold will not get the protection they deserve due to a recent decision by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Instead, these wild lands, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, will remain vulnerable to development.

In a shocking about-face, Salazar has rescinded his Dec. 22, 2010, order which had reversed President George W. Bush's policy of not managing wild lands to preserve their wilderness character.

Salazar's memorandum reads, "I am confirming today that ... the BLM will not designate any lands as 'Wild Lands'." That was early June, and clear evidence that we have just elected the most anti-environmental Congress in memory, and 250 million acres of potential wilderness is once again on the chopping block.

In Utah, and in many Western states, ultraconservative legislatures fed by contributions from oil and gas interests would prefer no wilderness. They see the land as a revenue source. They are not fazed by statistics that show these revenues make a relatively minor, short-term contribution to the state's economy, compared to the significant, ongoing contribution of the outdoor industry.

They are not bothered by the reality that a high percentage of the roads and wells are eventually abandoned, yet forever remain scars on the desert landscape. They say they love the land and I believe them. But I also believe their bias makes them blind to the wildlife habitat being destroyed, to the plants and forests being altered, to the air and water being affected, to the quality of wildness evaporating.

To say that President Obama has a full plate is amusing understatement. The list is long and the items are all of historical importance. What did he do to deserve two wars, the Great Recession, the great oil spill, the great tornado season, the 100-year Mississippi floods, the death of Medicare and the failure to raise the debt ceiling? We appreciate that he has designated 2 million acres of new wilderness and 1,100 miles of wild and scenic rivers.

And now he must do more. We need President Obama and we need him now. To make matters simple, I'm going to put this into the language of the day.

We are in a constant turmoil over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. The debate is about our core values, our principles, about keeping our accounts straight: borrowing what we need, repaying what we borrow, not encumbering future generations.

Now I ask you to think about use of the land in the same principled way we think about use of money. The oldest users of land in America see it that way, and I saw their message years ago when I was going into a remote trading post on the Third Mesa of the Hopi Indians in Arizona. The beat-up sign hanging beside the door said, "We don't inherit the earth. We borrow it from our children."

If I could make my case to President Obama, I would say that wilderness is the one debt ceiling we should never raise. We have already spent too much of our children's inheritance to justify spending more. Most of the wilderness land in the West cannot be borrowed for oil, gas, and mining projects and returned because desert (mountain or lowland), once disturbed, cannot repair itself.

In a Western wilderness, what is borrowed is mostly taken for all time. It is possible (but unwise) to print money to resolve a nation's debt crisis, but it is not possible to create more wilderness in a Western desert. Once the cryptogamic soil is gone, once the plants holding the soil in place are gone, once the animals and insects feeding on each other and the plants are disturbed, once the trees are no longer protected, once this complex, interlaced net of life is pierced, it cannot be repaired.

So President Obama and Secretary Salazar, as they talk to the most hostile Congress in history about Western wilderness, should remember this: These pieces of wild land are our crown jewels. They are our only national diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. If they give them away, they will be gone. Not just diminished — gone.

For wilderness, the debt ceiling cannot be raised.

Karen Shepherd, a former Democratic member of Congress from Utah (1993-95), has lived in the West most of her life and writes about it from time to time.