In the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton is making his mark as a prime preserver of federal lands.
Using a law enacted back when Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, President Clinton is unilaterally setting aside millions of acres of mountains, deserts, forests, and ocean environments. In recent months, he has issued executive orders designating a string of such "national monuments," thus protecting them against future development.
He's found other ways to shelter federal territory, as well. The latest is an 84-million-acre nature preserve around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, announced last week.
All presidents but three (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush) have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to preserve federal lands. But none more than Mr. Clinton.
It's a controversial effort, challenging traditional interests such as mining, ranching, logging, commercial fishing, and off-road recreational vehicles, particularly in the West.
As a result, land-use groups and property-rights advocates are challenging the president's actions in court, and some lawmakers (mostly Republicans) are threatening to change the law.
"Clinton has thumbed his nose at the West, at the Constitution, and at Congress, saying essentially, stop me if you can," charges William Perry Pendley, president and chief legal officer of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Denver-based public-interest law center that frequently has butted heads with environmentalists and the Clinton administration.
Together with the Blue Ribbon Coalition (which represents off-road-vehicle manufacturers and owners from a base in Pocatello, Idaho), the legal foundation is suing the Clinton administration over five national monuments created this year in Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.
The basis of the suit is a clause in the United States Constitution, which states that "Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or Property belonging to the United States." Arguing the other side, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, has intervened in the suit.
In all, Clinton has designated a dozen national monuments totaling nearly 5 million acres - more federal land protection in the contiguous United States than any other president. These range from the 2.1-acre Anderson Cottage in Washington, D.C. (Abraham Lincoln's summer home where he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation) to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, covering 1.9 million acres. Clinton also has put nearly one-third of all national forest land - some 60 million acres - off-limits to road-building.
The biggest plum, in the view of environmentalists, would be protection for the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northeast Alaska. According to petroleum geologists, the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, which extends from the foothills of the Brooks Range to the edge of the Arctic Ocean, could contain up to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
When ANWR was established 20 years ago, this portion was set aside for possible oil exploration. But the area also is home to a large variety of wildlife, including a herd of 129,000 caribou. Gwich'in Athabascan Indians in Alaska and Canada have relied on this migrating herd for thousands of years.
Because of its natural values, conservationists call the area "America's Serengeti." They're urging that Clinton - once and for all - prevent oil exploration in an area the oil industry has been eager to enter for more than a decade.
In particular, they are concerned that a Bush administration, with its pro-oil background (both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney worked in the industry and Bush staff chief Andrew Card was a lobbyist for the auto industry), would open the area to drilling.
"Drilling for oil in the Arctic refuge makes no more sense than damming the Grand Canyon for its energy potential," says Allen Smith, Alaska regional director of the Wilderness Society.
For its part, the oil industry asserts that modern recovery techniques now make it possible to get the oil without harming the environment or native residents.
"Producing that oil would affect only 19 square miles of ANWR," states the American Petroleum Institute. "That's about the size of Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., and only 1 percent of ANWR's coastal plain."
Environmentalists disagree, and they're urging Clinton to designate ANWR's coastal plain as a national monument. But they also realize that such a controversial move - as popular as it is with many Americans - could intensify congressional efforts to weaken the Antiquities Act of 1906, the law under which such designations are made.
Limiting presidential power
A bill introduced by Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho seeks to limit presidential power. It would require congressional approval of all future national monuments.
"No one wants the president, acting alone, to unilaterally lock up enormous parts of any state," says Senator Craig. "We certainly don't work that way in the West."
Clinton's opponents have accused him of waging a "war on the West." Whether or not that's true, his legacy will include a lot of territory having changed hands.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society