By carving some 1.8 million acres of California’s stunning backcountry into three new national monuments on Friday, President Obama, may have overtaken President Teddy Roosevelt as America’s greatest protector of the national landscape.
With the addition of these monuments – Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains – his administration has now set aside a record 265 million acres of land and water.
To some, Mr. Obama's use of the 110-year-old Antiquities Act to unilaterally designate a massive area that holds everything from lava flows to Joshua trees is a major legacy move, part of the President’s “commitment to aggressive action” to preserve public lands in their natural state.
But to others, it smacks of federal overreach. The creation of three national monuments came just a day after the final armed occupiers surrendered a 41-day siege of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, a standoff that fed into long-simmering resentments in the West over federal land management – including what Rep. Rob Bishop (R) of Utah called “presidential bullying” that impacts the people’s use of the land without Congressional approval.
The reaction to Obama's use of executive powers to protect these natural resources highlights the shifts in thinking around public lands and the impact of federal policy on Americans who live and work in the West.
“What is at stake” with opposition to federal conservation efforts like Obama’s monument push “defines the politics, but more importantly [the issue] transcends politics: land as a commodity versus land as, well, sacred,” writes author Carl Safina on the Huffington Post.
In the past three years, Obama has been clear about where he stands on that spectrum. After being berated by the Center for American Progress in 2013 for his lack of conservation zeal, Obama has been on a monumental monument spree. He has created or expanded some 22 monuments since 2009, including everything from a prehistoric mammoth nursery in Texas to a land-art sculpture called “City” in Nevada.
A "national monument" is similar to a national park designation, and can be any land owned or controlled by the federal government, and is then managed by one of four federal agencies. The Wilderness Society says that national monuments "protect 'existing rights,' meaning, whatever you did there before it was protected as a national monument, you can probably still do after it is designated. This includes previously-existing: Oil and gas leases, access to private property, valid mining claims, roads and utility infrastructure, and livestock grazing."
On Friday, he designated the Mojave Trails National Monument, the Sand to Snow National Monument and the Castle Mountains National Monument, areas that contain the longest undeveloped stretch of Route 66 as well as ancient Native American trading routes. Taken together, the new monuments form one of the largest desert conservation reserves on the globe.
“This is not just a win for the desert – it's a win for the people who live in and love this unique part of the country," David Lamfron, director of California Desert and National Wildlife Programs, told UPI.
Nevertheless, some Republicans, many of whom have berated Obama for his use of executive power in office, pushed back against the President’s use of the Antiquities Act, which, despite being sold in 1906 as a way for a president to protect small parcels for scientific reasons, has morphed into method for preserving vast tracts without Congressional approval. The Act has withstood myriad legal and legislative challenges. “[T]he outer bounds of its powers remain unknown,” Brent Hartman writes in Public Land and Resources Law Review.
“The intent of the Antiquities Act is not to act as the President’s magic wand to commandeer land,” Representative Bishop said. “… It’s an authoritarian act that ignores people under the guise of preservation.”
In recent years, the land-use issue has become a political rallying cry for Republicans, many who want to see federally managed lands in the West ceded to state control. Some 37 bills favoring local land seizures were introduced in 11 Western states during the 2015 legislative cycle.
The occupation at the Malheur, though decried by many, touched on some of those issues, including negative economic impacts of federal land management on remote rural communities in the West. That sentiment has seeped into battles between the White House and Congress on preserving land.
“Historically, Congress has been able to, when there was local support, to pass bills that protected lands as wilderness or parks,” says Greg Zimmerman, the policy director at the Center for Western Priorities. “But we’ve seen that bipartisan legacy of conservation in Congress really disappear.”
Some experts say Obama may be invoking the Antiquities Act – and may yet again before leaving office – out of concerns that it could be amended, or even overturned, under a Republican president.
“If a Republican is elected president, it would not be surprising if we were to see changes to the Antiquities Act,” Mark Squillace, a University of Colorado law professor, told the New York Times. “That would dramatically change things. I doubt we’d see many more monuments.”
Obama is under pressure to use his executive power to protect La Bajada Mesa in New Mexico and the Bears Ears area in San Juan County, Utah, both of which have also seen local opposition worried about more strictures on the land use.
That opposition fits into historic suspicion of federal involvement in Western land matters, much of which flared into protest during the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and 1980s. “In the US, there’s been a historical expectation of ready access to public lands and virtually free access to resources that can be tamed,” says John Ruple, a law professor at the University of Utah.
But as highlighted by Obama’s unilateral move, the West continues to transform from an extraction economy to a recreation and telecommuting hub, where 89 percent of people – including the largest cohort of young people of any US region – live in urban areas. Some 58 percent of Westerners, according to a 2016 poll by Colorado College, oppose transferring public lands to states, versus 33 percent who support that idea.
Such polls suggest that opposing federal management of America’s treasures is not a political winner, says Alex Taurel, the deputy legislative director with the League of Conservation Voters, in Washington, D.C.
Just this week, the Republican-led Wyoming legislature tabled a public lands transfer bill. And in the US Congress, the Senate on Feb. 2 rejected a bid by Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah, to gut the Antiquities Act, with several Republicans voting against Senator Lee's amendment.
“The [Malheur occupiers] and the people who share their views [on public lands] … don’t represent the West by any stretch,” says Mr. Taurel. “Support for national parks transcends party. It’s like a mom and apple pie thing. It hasn’t gotten caught up in the culture wars, and most people don’t think about this as an issue that’s in the political space.”