By the beginning of the 20th century, the United States had found that the bounty of its territory, once thought to have no practical end, was finite. Modern environmentalism arose as natural resources began to disappear, and two conflicting ideals emerged.

One, personified by John Muir, said that wild animals and places should be preserved forever in spiritual and physical safe havens. The other, guided by Gifford Pinchot, believed that it was humanity's right and responsibility to manage the resources of the natural world.

Muir's legacy can be enjoyed in our system of national parks and wildlife refuges, but Pinchot's philosophy prevailed in the far-greater expanses of land held by the Bureau of Land Management, state and national forests, and other public and private entities.

As a nation, we've tempered a reverence for nature with a calculus of collective self-interest. To make our mark as a culture, we knew we had to grow: We needed trees for houses, steel for machines, and land for cities and infrastructure. Now, at the opening of the 21st century, the debate about the proper use of public land centers not on a balance between its intrinsic and intangible value but on a utilitarian question: How, in perpetuity, can we manage undeveloped land to the best advantage of future generations?

As a business owner -- I make furniture -- I am aware that each time I work, I am engaged in the last economic step of stewardship. I am the last person to buy a few selected pieces of a tree and the last to sell them.

Huge numbers of such trees that grow in the 55,000 acres of Virginia's Jefferson National Forest are subject to the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act of 2005, which recently was introduced in Congress by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.).

This bill encourages planning for the long-term vitality of our natural and economic resources; it guarantees management for water quality and habitat preservation and directs the U.S. Forest Service to establish and maintain trails for hiking, hunting, fishing, caving and climbing. It also protects significant tracts of pristine wilderness from road construction, mining and clear-cutting. In short, the bill maintains the productive capacity of wild places while preserving their nourishing beauty and their potential as a source of revenue from recreational use.

Other public lands, of course, have fallen victim to the tragedy of the commons: Where too little monetary value is assigned, none is perceived. When I see photographs of overgrazed Bureau of Land Management land in the West, I can imagine communities withering, because economic disaster inevitably follows ecological exhaustion. If passed, the Ridge and Valley Act will prevent such shortsighted mismanagement.

Too often land held in the public trust has been abused under bastardized principles of conservation.

Pinchot's vision wasn't the strip mine or the clear-cut; it was thoughtful, reflective, purposeful environmental stewardship based on the long-term needs of the real world. It emphasized sustainability over rapacity, jobs over profiteering and access over restriction.

The Virginia Ridge and Valley Act advances Pinchot's agenda, and its use in the commonwealth could serve as a model for portions of national forest in the rest of the country.

As a businessman, an outdoorsman and an environmentalist, I hope for a full hearing in the House and Senate as well as speedy passage of this important legislation.

-- John T. Casteen IV