In a move that will further burnish his conservationist credentials while angering many Republicans and western business interest, President Obama on Friday announced three new “national monument” designations that will protect more than a million acres of land in California, Nevada and Texas from commercial development or destructive land uses.
The action makes Obama the president that has protected more public lands and waters than any other president, according to a White House statement – more than 260 million acres or 19 national monuments.
“Teddy Roosevelt, it's been said, had America’s best idea when he talked about preserving the incredible national heritage,” Obama said during a White House Oval Office ceremony on Friday. “And for me to be able to add to that heritage is greatly appreciated.
The new monument lands include:
- Berryessa Snow Mountain in California, a landscape containing rare biodiversity and an abundance of recreational opportunities.
- Waco Mammoth in Texas, a significant paleontological site featuring well preserved remains of 24 Columbian Mammoths.
- Basin and Range in Nevada, an iconic American landscape that includes rock art dating back 4,000 years and serves as an irreplaceable resource for archaeologists, historians, and ecologists.
Beyond protecting priceless landscapes and topography, the White House asserts that these new monuments will bolster local economies by attracting tourists and generating more revenue and jobs for local communities, further supporting an outdoor recreation industry that already generates $646 billion in consumer spending each year.
“By creating these three new national monuments, President Obama is continuing his commitment to preserving America’s treasured places and cementing his well-deserved place in conservation history,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has been a major booster of the Nevada monument designation and has said he wants to protect “City,” a massive earthen art installation, which the artist Michael Heizer has worked to create over nearly half a century. The sparsely populated and undeveloped area also serves as a migration corridor for large mammals such as mule deer and pronghorn.
The Basin and Range monument alone, at more than 1,000 square miles, is nearly the size of Rhode Island – much to the chagrin of its opponents who cite the president’s latest designations as more evidence of executive overreach.
Presidential monument designations have been a highly controversial executive function for decades. Theodore Roosevelt was the first to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate Devils Tower, Wyoming, as a national monument, and later to protect Native American ruins and artifacts. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran into strong resistance from lawmakers and states’ rights activists when he circumvented Congress to proclaim the Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming in 1943.
Former President Jimmy Carter made substantial use of the proclamation authority. In 1978, Carter proclaimed 15 new national monuments in Alaska after Congress adjourned without passing any major legislation to protect Alaskan lands. Carter caused such a furor that it wasn’t until 1996 that another Democratic president – Bill Clinton – invoked the Antiquities Act to proclaim the majestic Grand Staircase-Escalate in southern Utah as a national monument.
While environmentalists and conservationists hailed Clinton’s action, western ranchers and local officials strongly opposed the move, arguing that it would further impede cattle grazing in the rugged, remote area and hurt local businesses.
Angry lawmakers from the area introduced a handful of bills to curtail future use of the Antiquities Act, although none of those bills ever advanced. Clinton’s successor, Republican President George W. Bush, designated at least 200 million acres of marine reserve near Hawaii at the end of his administration.
Since taking office in 2009, Obama has made federal lands protection a hallmark of his environmental agenda, along with efforts to combat industrial carbon emissions and climate change.
Just last Wednesday, the House voted to adopt an amendment introduced by Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-NV) that would block the use of federal money to carry out the presidential designation of a national monument under the Antiquities Act in 17 counties in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Utah.
“This [his amendment] is about empowering local communities and local stakeholders most affected by monument designations, and will increase transparency, allow for local input, and provide for improved management of our public lands,” Hardy said.
Hardy’s rider was attached to the fiscal 2016 Interior Department appropriations bill, which House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) decided to pull back Thursday following an angry floor debate over another amendment restricting the display of the Confederate flag.
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