Climate

Obama Permanently Protects More Than One Million Acres Of Public Lands

CREDIT: Tyler Roemer

Early Friday, President Obama announced that he will designate three new national monuments, permanently protecting more than one million acres of public lands. He designated pristine wilderness landscapes in Nevada as Basin and Range National Monument, scenic mountains in California as Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, and a fossil-rich site in Texas as Waco Mammoth National Monument.

With these designations, President Obama is adding to the 16 national monuments he has already created with his authority under the Antiquities Act, setting aside “more public lands and waters than any administration in history.” Both Democratic and Republican presidents have used their authority under the law to designate national monuments, many of which have later become some of the country’s most iconic national parks such as the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Arches National Park.

A diverse array of groups praised the announcement, emphasizing that the new monuments were a response to years of local support and advocacy to permanently protect these sites.

“By creating these three new national monuments, President Obama is continuing his commitment to preserving America’s treasured places and cementing his well-deserved place in conservation history,” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters told the Hill. “The President acted in response to the overwhelming support expressed by local communities and stakeholders across the country for protecting these places of extraordinary environmental, historic, and scientific value.”

The new Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada is unique for its pristine valleys of wilderness and wildlife habitat, and significant cultural and historical sites, including ancient artwork dating as far back as 4,000 years. The monument also includes a modern art piece, entitled ‘City,’ which is composed of a series of sculptures created over decades in the desert by artist Michael Heizer.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told the Washington Post earlier this week that for him, “the most beautiful [part] of nature, [is] the desert” and that “there’s no place in America that represents what I think is beauty more than this Basin and Range.”

The other two monuments established today will also permanently protect unique historic and scenic sites, and promise to bring significant economic revenue for surrounding communities. The Waco Mammoth National Monument in Texas will preserve a site which is home to the remains of 24 mammoths, and which already attracts more than 20,000 visitors every year.

The Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument is known as a prime recreational destination and one of the most biologically diverse areas in California. A report released earlier this month found that designation of the area as a national monument has the potential to generate more than $26 million for the surrounding community over the next five years.

“I applaud the president, because his historic action will preserve this magnificent area for generations and boost the local economy,” Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) told the Associated Press early Friday.

Although the President’s action to protect the three sites was strongly supported by local communities, elected officials, faith advocacy organizations, conservation groups and many more, a few Republican members of Congress continue to attack the Antiquities Act and attempt to undermine the president’s authority to designate new national monuments.

Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-NV), in particular, criticized the president’s plans to protect Nevada’s Basin and Range area, after leaking the plans for the new national monument in May. In a press release, Rep. Hardy said that he was “appalled and deeply concerned about the national security implications” of the proposal because it would overlap with the airspace of military training grounds.

Despite Rep. Hardy’s concerns over national security, Department of Homeland Security officials and others have continued to emphasize that protections for public lands and wildlife do not inhibit national security operations. According to the Center for Western Priorities, the congressman’s concerns for national security are “explicitly undermined in the draft monument proclamation that he leaked.”

In addition to his initial attacks on the new monument, Rep. Hardy attached an amendment to the Department of the Interior’s appropriations bill on Tuesday as the latest in a series of attacks from congressional Republicans in a “No More National Parks” campaign. The amendment, which narrowly passed in the House on Wednesday, undermines the president’s use of the Antiquities Act by blocking the use of federal money for national monument designations in specific counties in a number of Western states.

Congressional Republicans pulled the House Interior bill from the floor on Thursday over a provision that would ban the display of the confederate flag on public lands, and have not indicated when they plan to pick up the spending bill again.

Claire Moser is the Research and Advocacy Associate with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @Claire_Moser. Annie Wang is an intern with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.