On Thursday, President Obama is expected to announce three new national monuments, adding to the 13 monuments he’s already designated during his presidency. Traveling to Illinois, Obama will officially proclaim the Pullman Historic District of Chicago, Browns Canyon in Colorado, and a former Honouliuli Internment Camp site in Hawaii to be national monuments.
Obama has the authority to designate federal lands for protection as national monuments under the Antiquities Act, which dates back to the administration of Theodore Roosevelt as a way to preserve archeological or historic sites. The measure authorizes the president to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest without the need of congressional approval. Republicans in a number of states consider the law to be outdated, and have pushed for bills that roll back this authority. Congressional Republicans from Colorado reacted harshly to the designation of Browns Canyon, with one representative saying Obama was acting like “King Barack.”
With Congress able to stifle most of the administration’s efforts to improve air and water quality and mitigate and adapt to climate change, Obama has turned to the Antiquities Act as a reliable method of protecting cultural and natural resources across the country. This is especially apparent when it comes to hydraulic fracturing, as a number of Republicans have advocated drilling on federal lands, including national parks.
With fracking currently legal on federal lands, oil and gas development is already underway in certain national forests or recreational areas — and if it’s not taking place within the borders of these areas it often happens nearby. Aside from the noise, traffic and light pollution, this process can result in damaging spills or water contamination from which it can take decades to recover.
Each of these three new designations are meaningful in different ways — and not only for their preservationist slant. As ClimateProgress recently reported, the Pullman Historic District in Chicago was the country’s first planned industrial town. It become well-known after a violent factory strike in 1894, which came to be seen as a pivotal moment in the history of the labor and civil rights movements for leading to the creation of the first African American labor union.
A 2014 Center for American Progress analysis found that only 24 percent of our nation’s national parks and monuments are dedicated to diverse communities or commemorate minority figures or events — the Obama Administration is focused on making the National Park System more reflective of the country’s overall diversity.
The new Hawaii national monument is also especially significant for its cultural legacy. Built on 160 acres in west Oʻahu, the Honouliuli Internment Camp was the longest-operating and largest World War II internment and POW camp in Hawaii, incarcerating more than 2,300 Japanese-American men and women during the course of World War II.
“As a new national monument, Honouliuli will be a great gift to our state and nation,” said Carole Hayashino, the President and Executive Director of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, in a statement. “On behalf of the Japanese American internees and their families, I want to thank President Obama for vindicating the honor of those who were incarcerated and for recognizing the historic site as a lesson in injustice and forgiveness for all Americans and for future generations.”
After a two-decade effort, Browns Canyon’s designation as a national monument fits more into the naturalist mold of “sanctuary of wildlife” as expressed by Bill Dvorak, who runs an outdoor-expedition business nearby. The 22,000-acre area on the Arkansas River in central Colorado is a popular fishing, rafting and hiking spot.
Former U.S. Representative Joel Hefley, a Republican who represented the district from 1987 to 2007 and originally championed the project, said that “this new National Monument will mean a lot to Chaffee County and also for future generations as they enjoy this special place. I am thrilled that after all these years it is finally happening.”
Rather than echo the enthusiasm of his predecessor, the current representative of the district, Doug Lamborn, also a Republican, expressed outrage at the designation.
“This is a top-down, big-government land grab by the president that disenfranchises the concerned citizens in the Browns Canyon region,” he said in a statement. “It is also important for people to note that national monuments created by presidential executive order under the Antiquities Act almost always become underfunded, neglected properties,” he added.
In 2007, when Lamborn attempted to champion his own Colorado national monument, he failed to mention these serious apprehensions, saying instead that making Pikes Peak, a Colorado mountain summit, a national monument would “promote tourism.”
“There are people who love to go around and visit the national monuments around the country and the national parks,” he said at the time.
Fellow Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO) went even further than Lamborn, saying that Obama was “acting like King Barack” and that this “is not how we do things in the U.S.”
Designating national monuments has been done by both Republican and Democratic presidents over the last century to protect some of the country’s most historically significant and iconic places, including the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Channel Islands in California, and Arches National Park. Designated in 1906, Devils Tower in Wyoming was the first national monument; there are now nearly 150 across the country.
President George W. Bush employed the Antiquities Act five times while he was in office, and President Bill Clinton used it 19 times. According to the White House President Obama has now used his powers under the Antiquities Act to protect more than 260 million acres of land and water, which is more than any other President since 1906.