by Tom Kenworthy
Voters who tuned in to the most recent presidential debate may have come away with the impression that the country’s vast portfolio of public lands exists almost solely for oil, gas and coal development.
But even though it hasn’t gotten as much attention, President Obama has recently been demonstrating the power he holds thanks to the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows him to protect important parts of the federal estate by declaring them national monuments. Signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt, the act has been used by most presidents – of both parties – in the years since to protect special public lands, including quite a few that have gone on to receive full national park status by Congress.
Earlier this month, the president created his fourth monument in less than a year, the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene, California. The designation honors the late civil rights worker and founder of the United Farm Workers who did so much to further the cause of itinerant field laborers, many of them Hispanic.
As usual, some congressional Republicans called the Chavez monument designation an abuse of presidential power. And, like Captain Renault in the film “Casablanca,” some Republicans were shocked – shocked – to see the leader of the free world playing politics with the Antiquities Act.
“This national monument designation is an unnecessary use of Presidential powers and appears to be based more on politics than sound policy,” House Natural Resources Committee Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) complained in a statement in response to the Chavez monument designation. Hastings didn’t say it outright, but he obviously thought the president was appealing to Hispanic voters, a key bloc in the upcoming election.
Hastings and his House GOP colleagues have themselves repeatedly played politics on public lands issues over the past two years, on everything from energy development to proposed legislation to curtail the administration’s power to shield federal lands from commercial activities.
What they can’t seem to come to grips with is that the public – in particular the public in many western states – understands and supports protection of special federal lands, and knows that it’s both good politics and good economics to save some areas from drilling rigs and road graders.
A poll commissioned this year by the Colorado College State of the Rockies project, for example, found that nine out of ten westerners believe that public lands play an important part in their quality of life and in their states’ economies
Tom Kenworthy is a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund.