As the clock winds down on the Obama presidency, I’m going out on a pretty strong limb to make a pronouncement. Here goes:
When it comes to public lands preservation, Barack Obama is the greatest conservation president of the modern era. Not since Theodore Roosevelt has the nation been blessed with a leader so willing to exercise the power granted the president by the 1906 Antiquities Act. We are all better off for it.
The Antiquities Act empowers the president to proclaim national monuments for the protection of natural, cultural, and scientific features. It was conceived as a response to increased looting and vandalism at important archaeological sites in the Southwest. The first national monuments, proclaimed by Theodore Roosevelt, included Devils Tower, El Morro, Montezuma Castle, and Petrified Forest.
Historically, the Act has often been used as a sort of consolation prize to protect areas when national park bills failed to win support. A number of these sites later became national parks: Grand Canyon, Lassen Volcanic, Zion, and Bryce Canyon to name a few.
Although a New Deal executive order in 1933 transferred administration of all national monuments to the National Park Service, today national monuments are also managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Fish & Wildlife, and a few smaller agencies.
As environmental historian Hal Rothman points out in his definitive book, America’s National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation, the Antiquities Act’s inherent flexibility has allowed its implementation to evolve as American values about public lands and preservation have evolved. This is evident in a place like Stonewall National Monument, established in June 2016. It’s impossible to imagine any president but Barack Obama designating that monument. Public values about LGBTQ rights have evolved to the point where commemorating the struggle so many endured to win those rights is only fitting.
Stonewall is one of nearly 30 national monuments and historical parks created under President Obama’s watch. Plenty of articles have been published of late extolling his public lands legacy — he has set aside more land and water, some 550 million (mostly water) acres in all, than any other president — but I hadn’t seen a comprehensive list. So, here’s my best shot. Look at the dates and you’ll note that Obama followed what has become a sort of presidential tradition by designating a handful of noncontroversial monuments during his first term. But beginning in 2013, his monument designations started taking off, and he never looked back.
Prehistoric Trackways NM, New Mexico (3/30/09)*
Fort Monroe NM, Virginia (11/1/11)
Fort Ord NM, California (4/20/12)
Chimney Rock NM, Colorado (9/21/12)
Cesar E. Chavez NM, California (10/8/12)
Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers NM, Ohio (3/25/13)
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad NHP, Maryland (3/25/13)**
Rio Grande del Norte NM, New Mexico (3/25/13)
San Juan Islands NM, Washington (3/25/13)
First State National Historical Park, Delaware and Pennsylvania (3/25/13)**
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks NM, New Mexico (5/21/14)
San Gabriel Mountains NM, California (10/10/14)
Tule Springs NM, Nevada (12/19/14)
Pullman NM, Illinois (2/19/15)
Honouliuli NM, Hawaii (2/19/15)
Browns Canyon NM, Colorado (2/19/15)
Waco Mammoth NM, Texas (7/10/15)
Basin and Range NM, Nevada (7/10/2015)
Berryessa Snow Mountain NM, California (7/10/15)
Mojave Trails NM, California (2/12/16)
Sand to Snow NM, California (2/12/16)
Castle Mountains NM, California (2/12/16)
Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality NM, Washington, DC (4/12/16)
Stonewall NM, New York (6/24/16)
Papahānaumokuākea Marine NM, Hawaii (expansion) (8/16)
Katahdin Woods and Waters NM, Maine (8/24/16)
Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine NM, New England coast (9/15/16)
Bears Ears NM, Utah (12/28/16)
Gold Butte NM, Nevada (12/28/16)
Harriet Tubman NHP, New York (1/10/17)
Birmingham Civil Rights NM, Alabama (1/12/17)
Freedom Riders NM, Alabama (1/12/17)
Reconstruction Era NM, South Carolina (1/12/17)
Cascade-Siskiyou NM, Oregon (expansion) (1/12/17)
California Coastal NM, California (expansion) (1/12/17)
By his monument designations, President Obama closed gaping holes in our shared history, protected places important to science, preserved ancient sites crucial to understanding our shared experiences, and celebrated the efforts of those who worked indefatigably for justice and human rights. He has expanded the national parks system to reflect the dominant cultural values of the American people. It’s a remarkable achievement by a remarkable man. And it’s an extraordinary legacy.
That legacy is under fire by some Congressional Republicans, who claim Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act usurps local control in favor of the national interest. And Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), joined by 25 colleagues, has introduced a bill that would eviscerate the Act by requiring new monuments be approved by Congress, like national parks. The whole point of the Antiquities Act is to empower the president to judiciously and unilaterally protect important historic, scientific, and cultural sites.
Since 1968, when President Johnson signed legislation creating North Cascades and Redwood National Parks, every new national park designated has been a national monument first, which is part of the argument against killing the Antiquities Act. National monuments can act as safeguards, protecting an area until a final decision is made about its administration. Senate Bill 347 would essentially eliminate the Act, which is, of course, exactly what Sen. Murkowski and her allies want.
It sometimes seems that most environmental arguments come down to the issue of national versus local interests. The fact is, though, many of Obama’s monument protect local interests even as they serve the national public good. Monuments have more flexibility in allowing existing uses, such as hunting, fishing, and grazing. Several of the monuments designated by Obama, including Bears Ears and Gold Butte, will allow most existing uses to continue.
One use that won’t be allowed, though, is oil and gas exploration and extraction. And that’s really what the anti-public lands Republicans don’t like. Sen. Murkowski’s bill is the latest attempt to privatize public lands and sell them to the highest bidder. Deep-pocketed oil and gas companies would love to get their equipment into Bears Ears, and Sen. Murkowski, the chair of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, would love to help them.
Our public lands are under full-on assault by this Congress. As much as we’ve delighted in each new national monument created by President Obama, we must now be vigilant in resisting any attempt to undo those designations or weaken public lands ownership. Friends who work in politics tell me that calling your Congressional representatives’ local offices is the most effective approach, because the staff have to respond to you, a constituent. I’ll be registering my opposition to this bill and to any legislation that would remove public lands from their rightful owners, the American people. I urge you to do the same.
*My friend Scott pointed out that Trackways NM was actually part of a public lands omnibus bill, not a presidential declaration. But, he added, it gave the then-new president “a taste of the politics involved” in public lands management.
**Obama initially proclaimed a national monument, then Congress upgraded the site to national historical park.