As of last week, our country has five new national monuments; two of them are in the West.
The Eastern sites, controlled by the National Park Service, are cultural – new monuments in Ohio and Maryland commemorate Charles Young, the first African-American colonel in the Army, and Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, while the Delaware site tells the story of the state's settlement by Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English immigrants.
The Western monuments, on BLM land, are mostly meant to preserve natural wonders -- the 240,000-acre Rio Grande del Norte Monument in New Mexico protects elk, Rio Grande cutthroat trout, river otters and golden and bald eagles, along with petroglyphs and extinct volcanoes, and the 1,000-acre San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington State was set aside for orcas, seals, threatened marbled murrelets, peregrine falcons, great camas and historic lighthouses.
Obama is the 16th president to protect public lands by wielding the power of a bedrock conservation law -- the 1906 Antiquities Act. At least 70 million acres have been set aside as national monuments in this way, which avoids the tendentious problem of getting Congressional approval (here's an HCN timeline with some early successes).
Small-government conservatives have long attempted to rescind the president's authority to designate new monuments under the Act; most recently, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) suggested an amendment to that effect during the March budget debate, but it went nowhere.
Despite the uproar generated a few years ago by even the mere suggestion that Obama might designate new monuments in the West, the San Juan and Rio Grande monuments have been received with loud cheers and very little grumbling. Except, of course, from some House Republicans.
Here's a typically hyperbolic reaction from Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the Natural Resources Committee Chair who along with many of his fellows has fought the creation of new wilderness areas and national parks: “The Obama Administration not only sees the sequester as an opportunity to make automatic spending reductions as painful as possible on the American people, it’s also a good time for the President to dictate under a century-old law that the government spend money it doesn’t have on property it doesn’t even own.”
It's not clear where Hastings is coming from – the American public already owns the recently-designated lands, of course. And monuments have proven beneficial for not only wildlife, but for local economies. Taos County, New Mexico, looks forward to the boost the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument will bring, reports the Santa Fe New Mexican: estimates are for $15 million in new annual revenues and nearly 300 new jobs.
According to a 2011 study by Headwaters Economics, communities near large monuments show consistent increases in population, employment and personal and per-capita income. Some highlights from the study, which looked at 17 monuments in 11 states:
Between its creation by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and 2008, the communities around the 1.8 million acre Grand Staircase saw their population grow by 8 percent – and had job growth of 38% … real personal income rose by 40% and real per capita income jumped 30%.
In the Grand Canyon-Parashant region, jobs grew by 44 percent between 2000 and 2008, ten percentage points higher than population growth. Real personal income was up 44 percent.
Since taking office, Obama has designated a total of eight national monuments, including Chimney Rock in southwestern Colorado. Other potential new monuments include the Browns Canyon region of southern Colorado and Utah's Greater Canyonlands, which would encompass Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Manti-La Sal National Forest and Natural Bridges National Monument.
Odds are good that he'll set aside more monument land before leaving office, especially since the last Congress was the first in more than six decades that failed to designate a single new national park, monument or wilderness area. But it's going to take a lot for Obama to equal the records of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who protected roughly one acre of land for every acre opened to development. Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary under Clinton, told the New York Times in February:
So far under President Obama, industry has been winning the race as it obtains more and more land for oil and gas. Over the past four years, the industry has leased more than 6 million acres, compared with only 2.6 million acres permanently protected.
Jodi Peterson is the managing editor at High Country News.
San Juan Islands photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.