Obama Lays Groundwork For His Conservation Legacy

by Christy Goldfuss

For many conservationists and lovers of the great outdoors, it was not obvious at first how President Barack Obama, with his urban Chicago roots, would make his mark on the vast expanse known as the public estate—national parks, national forests, monuments, and hundreds of millions of acres of lands that belong to all Americans. Despite his early trip to Grand Canyon National Park with his daughters Sasha and Malia, it seemed unlikely that this former community organizer would follow in the footsteps of President Teddy Roosevelt and prioritize protecting large areas of land for future generations.

But three actions in the past two weeks show how President Obama and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar are working from the ground up to build this administration’s conservation legacy: the designation of Fort Monroe as a national monument, a new proposal for solar energy development on public lands, and recent plans to protect the Grand Canyon from mining development.

Protecting Fort Monroe

An initial insight into the administration’s thinking on protecting land can be seen in the strategy and vision behind what will likely become its crowning conservation effort: the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, or AGO.

As originally announced in April 2010, AGO’s purpose was to identify a conservation and recreation agenda for the administration based on the premise that “lasting conservation solutions should rise from the American people.” As part of this effort, the Department of the Interior held 51 public listening sessions across the country, collected 100,000 public comments, and met with all 50 governors.

This was a careful process that didn’t get a lot of attention, but we are starting to see the fruits of this labor, beginning with a place few Americans know: Fort Monroe in Virginia.

This week, President Obama exercised his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate Fort Monroe as a national monument in one of the first major executive actions coming out of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. This Civil War site at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay is an amazing part of America’s history and undeniably in need of protection. The fort was the location of a key event in the Civil War that led to the beginning of the end of slavery, when a Union general refused to return three escaped slaves to their Confederate owners. As part of the Army’s Base Realignment and Closure process, the property was scheduled to be transferred to the state of Virginia.

With the U.S. Army scheduled to officially vacate the island after the new year, Virginia’s leaders, including Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) and Republicans and Democrats from the congressional delegation, asked the president to use his power to protect Fort Monroe and set it on the path to becoming a national park.

This level of local support refutes talking points used by conservatives, particularly those from the West, who have introduced and co-sponsored at least eight bills designed to limit the president’s authority under the Antiquities Act. Opponents of this presidential authority point to President Bill Clinton’s designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah in 1996, saying it was a federal “land grab” that hurt local communities.

We now know that the monument is a major economic driver in some of the neighboring towns. But that didn’t stop Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) from carrying on his quest to prevent the president from looking beyond the politics of day to protect places for future generations.

Earlier this year, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing on the Utah Lands Sovereignty Act, which would limit the president’s authority by requiring congressional approval for any new national monument in the state of Utah. In his press release for the hearing, Rep. Bishop proclaimed that, “Radical special interest groups continue to push the administration to use the Antiquities Act.”

Fort Monroe’s designation as a national monument is hardly the work of “radical special interests.” Instead, the hard work of the Hampton Roads community and a bipartisan group of Virginia leaders shines through as they partnered with President Obama to protect an important place in American history.

Promoting solar energy development

Next, the administration’s effort to direct solar energy development to low-conflict and high-solar resource zones on America’s public lands is further evidence of its collaborative and locally driven approach to conservation measures.

This effort took a major step forward last week with the release of the draft supplemental solar programmatic environmental impact statement. Rather than letting industry build haphazardly, the new strategy directs development to the most appropriate locations on public lands based on the high access to solar, transmission, and overall impact on other natural resources.

This statement has been a slow and sometimes frustrating process for all parties, including environmentalists, solar companies, utilities, and other stakeholders involved with developing this new approach to energy development on public lands. Indeed, the Interior Department held 14 public meetings and sifted through 80,000 public comments in formulating the most recent draft of the document.

Media reaction seemed lackluster, but this is actually a dramatic step for the Obama administration. It is setting the stage for a new paradigm of energy development on public lands, which takes lessons from oil and gas development.

If you peel away the bureaucratic title and process, it is safe to say that this new approach to energy development on public lands would have even made President Roosevelt proud.

Preserving the Grand Canyon

And then there’s the Grand Canyon. Last week, the administration took one of the last steps necessary to protect almost 1 million acres next to Grand Canyon National Park from new mining activity.

The administration, under great pressure to slow a mining boom at the edge of the park, took one of its first conservation actions by announcing a two-year halt in 2009 to any new attempts to mine in an area neighboring one of America’s greatest natural assets. With more than 4 million visitors each year, the park is a major economic engine, supporting 6,000 jobs and providing $412 million dollars in visitor spending to the Arizona economy.

Secretary Salazar could have pushed for an immediate 20-year halt to all new mining attempts. Instead, he used the two-year time-out to collect nearly 300,000 public comments and thoroughly analyze the environmental impacts of letting the mining boom continue. Even with the withdrawal in place, more than 6,000 valid existing claims by mining interests will still be allowed to go forward.

In the end, the administration is recommending a 20-year halt to new mining attempts in an almost 1 million acre area. A decision will be finalized in the next month.

A good start

So in a two-week period, conservationists have three administrative actions to celebrate: Fort Monroe (the first national monument of the Obama administration), a new approach to energy development on public lands, and protections for the Grand Canyon, one of the mightiest American symbols of our shared commitment to land conservation.

All three of these announcements are significant on their own. Together, they paint a picture of a careful, diligent, and responsive administration that is well aware of its duty to protect American treasures against special interests who seek to drill and mine public lands at any cost. While Western conservatives spend their time fighting old battles with presidents who left the Oval Office long ago, the current president moves forward with quiet victories of his own.

It was President Teddy Roosevelt’s bold action that originally protected the Grand Canyon as a national monument. He famously said, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

President Obama has started to carry on that conservation vision, not only by protecting the Grand Canyon, but by presenting a new approach to developing a conservation legacy one step at a time. We look forward to what the next step will be and where that path leads as future generations depend on Secretary Salazar and President Obama continuing this tradition.

Christy Goldfuss is the Public Lands Project Director at American Progress. This piece was originally published at the Center for American Progress website.

10 Responses to Obama Lays Groundwork For His Conservation Legacy

  1. mike Roddy says:

    Sorry, I’m not impressed. Fort Monroe is historical, not environmental preservation. Grand Canyon was kind of obvious. Only someone like Perry would want to mine there. The solar land program was bungled by Interior and defeated by fossil fuel companies and faux green groups’ lawsuits and appeals. Instead of calling them out and fighting them, the Administration is now compromising. There have been so many betrayals already- led by Salazar- that Obama seems like a cheating husband promising to be good.

    Yeah, this is better than nothing, but if Obama really wanted to impress me he could set aside some vulnerable National Forest land in Oregon and Montana for wilderness protection, implement ozone regs, begin the conversation about extractive industries’ being asked to pay for health care and the destruction of land, etc.

    He has a long way to go to regain our trust.

  2. Tom Lenz says:

    Just more fiddling while Rome burns.

  3. Raul M. says:

    Let’s see if fed’s don’t blow up, they might have the monies to make a solar park that produces elec. for profit. Strange, that it would take so much thought to figure out that that could have done so years ago.
    But, better late than never to figure things out.
    Humm, solar park could power hydroponics air temp. controls, not nearly so much water needed for food growth year round.
    Oh, it’s probably to smart and streamlined for them to do because there isn’t much fighting going on about such a system and well they have those ideas about how it was all won.
    There was food though even if it was stolen, still there had to be food before it could be taken, you know.

  4. Tom Lenz says:

    Yes, save the island of Fort Monroe by ignoring rising sea levels. Great plan! Save the Grand Canyon so the dried-up Colorado river can cease creating it. Save all public lands so they can parch,burn, and blow away or be inudated by raging flood waters. Save everything for future generations to enjoy as they grovel in the dirt for something to eat, maybe a bug or a grub. When Mr. Obama does the right thing, the courageous thing, vetoes the pipeline and takes the lead on climate I will give him all the credit he deserves. The only way to actually save anything is to let it live.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    Gosh, this post sounds like it was penned directly by the 2012 Obama re-election committee. He’s really with us folks, we can vote for him now….

    It’s nice to see Hopey Changy has done some little (meaningless) stuff here, but getting a little religion with less than a year before re-election doesn’t erase all the damage done by the administration’s previous horrific choices, from the very beginning.

    As for Mr. Obama’s long term legacy, he presided over (quite possibly) the last chance to have action on climate change (prior to it becoming too late to stop) and willingly sold his voters, the citizenry of the U.S. and the world down the river (while pretending it wasn’t the case). He actively chose the tar sands (2 Alberta Tar Sands pipelines in 2009), coal industry (large expansion of coal mining on public lands and continued mountain top removal mining) and on and on. If that was our last politically viable chance for climate action before the point of no return, cause nature will take over massive CO2 production at some point soon, he will be vilified in the history books.

    His more immediate legacy seems to be that his administration was an extraordinarily (for a Democrat) active shill for industry (particularly fossil fuel industry) and corrupt on an exceptional scale – calling to mind the historical comments of the Grant administration.

  6. John McCormick says:

    Is anyone at the White House reading this blog? Do they care?

  7. Joan Savage says:

    It is difficult to think that preserving the Grand Canyon will be successful when so much mining is allowed to continue.

    “Even with the withdrawal in place, more than 6,000 valid existing claims by mining interests will still be allowed to go forward.”

    The mining interests principally seek uranium. The Canadian company Denison, as allowed by NAFTA, continued to mine near the canyon even while Salazar had a temporary ban on US-based mining there. Denison’s haul routes cross the Grand Canyon and Colorado River and reservation land.

    Native peoples, game hunters and environmental groups have allied to oppose the risk of uranium mining affecting ground water, human health and other aspects the environment.

    A 20 year ban on new mining claims totally misses the risk implications of the 6000 mining claims that will be allowed to move ahead.

  8. Raul M. says:

    Just read most of the comments of the blog reference from last year on the methane releases. It is a reference blog at the recent post about the drying peat of the arctic region.
    The talk of the methane leaks of this year seem more direct, in that the releases will be more meaningful to world civilizations than the releases of last year.
    Seems that world politicians will need to make a separate storm shelter group for the retired or former members of the hierarchy. Certainly the military leaders have the monies and powers to do so. And there are many studies showing they are more deserving anyway.

  9. David Thomas says:

    Fort Monroe has been preserved for 51 years already. The Grand Canyon has been preserved for 92 years already. Perhaps, Obama should look toward creating something new, not just claiming responsibility for others works. HMMM….Maybe he should divide the colony of Carolina into North and South to try and regain some lost support in the south. LMAO – this man is the worst American since Benedict Arnold!!!

  10. Roger Shamel says:

    I agree with Mike (and others). This is supposed to impress us–when a livable climate is on the way down the tubes?

    You know, it’s getting to the point where Obama’s silence about climate change is almost as bad as his denial of it. My family and friends wonder why I’m up in arms over something that I swear is r-e-a-l-l-y serious when our president–our leader–is silent about it. Leaders speak up about serious issues. It doesn’t make sense.

    So, tomorrow, at the White House, I’ll be asking Obama to speak up, and to lead misinformed Americans to the truth about climate change opportunities and threats. His veto of the Keystone XL will follow!
    Warm regards,