With the few strokes of a pen on Monday, President Obama created five new national monuments, and took an important step towards establishing a stronger public lands conservation record for his presidency. The package of monuments created with the longstanding authority granted to presidents by the 1906 Antiquities Act includes the first landscape of any real size protected by this administration, the 242,500 acre Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument.
The administration still has a lot of ground to make up if it is to achieve a proper balance between the amount of public land it has leased for oil and gas development and the amount it has permanently protected. That goal, giving permanent protection to public land areas equal in size to what is drilled, is endorsed by the Center for American Progress and was ably amplified by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt during an important early February speech. As CAP has pointed out, President Obama’s record on public land conservation is far weaker than his recent White House predecessors.
Even so, President Obama appears to be gaining some enthusiasm for the conservation powers he can use to circumvent a hostile House of Representatives and satisfy the public’s thirst for protecting prized federal lands from inappropriate commercial development. The Antiquities Act, which gives the president broad authority to designate monuments and has been used by 16 of the 19 presidents since Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law, is one of those powers.
There are other actions the president can take without waiting for any say so from Congress.
In western Colorado, he can protect more than 100,000 acres of spectacular country revered for its hunting, fishing, clean water, and ranching by simply having the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management let 61 oil and gas leases expire in the next few months. Since purchasing the ten-year leases on national forest land in the Thompson Divide in 2003, oil and gas companies have mostly sat on them, moving to get actual development permits only recently.
Now those permits are soon to expire, and residents and public officials have mobilized to protect the Thompson Divide permanently. Local landowners and others have raised $2.5 million to buy back the leases, and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) has introduced legislation to withdraw all public land in the 221,000 Thompson Divide area from mineral leasing while protecting valid existing leases.
The few energy companies that have bothered to respond to the citizens’ coalition offer of $2.5 million have spurned it. If the BLM has the good sense to reject industry requests for extensions on the leases, those oil and gas companies might get more reasonable about negotiating a buyout. With a buyout, Bennet’s legislation could protect most of the area forever.
To the west in Utah, President Obama has another opportunity. He can reverse some of the destructive actions of the previous administration which in its waning months issued long range plans governing public and commercial uses for some 11 million acres of BLM-managed red rock canyon country. Those plans, typically in effect for 15 or 20 years, offered up 80 percent of those public lands to oil and gas, and designated 20,000 miles of dirt paths open to motorized travel.
Sued by conservation groups in a case that is still in federal court, the Obama administration has defended those land management plans. It should instead seek a settlement with the conservation groups and agree to revise the plans to better protect some of the most spectacular public landscapes in the U.S.
Tom Kenworthy is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund