What the president can do for conservation

  • The Owyhee Canyons of southeast Oregon is one of several areas across the West where President Obama could create national monuments that already have local support.


When a racist rancher in Nevada and his armed supporters can command headlines by claiming to own and control publicly owned lands, perhaps it's time to remind Westerners about the history of the nation's public-land heritage.

Recall that it is we, the American people, who own the public lands that make up so much of our Western states. These great open spaces are the birthright of all of us, not just the residents of Nevada or Arizona or other Western states. The question of ownership of the public lands was settled by the founding fathers, in favor of you and me, by the Maryland compromise reached in 1781, and carried forward in the property clause of Article IV in the United States Constitution.

On occasion, diehard malcontents such as Cliven Bundy emerge to promote so-called "Sagebrush Rebellions" to turn the public lands over to the states as a conduit for handing them out to resource raiders and private interests. Governors and state legislatures, most recently in Utah, are sometimes drawn into endorsing these movements, only to see them fade away in the face of public opinion.

Now, while this latest fracas is fresh in our minds, let me speak up for the employees of the Bureau of Land Management who have been demonized by Fox newsman Sean Hannity and threatened by rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers. BLM staffers are dedicated public servants who struggle with the unenviable task of juggling the conflicting demands of ranchers, miners, oil and gas companies, sportsmen and conservationists. They deserve our respect and our gratitude.

I believe that the whole sorry Bundy episode has given us an opportunity to renew our commitment to conservation. We can do that by calling on President Obama to take action to protect more of the special places on our public lands.

He can begin by using the Antiquities Act to establish more national monuments. Some may counsel caution in light of the recent House passage of a bill by Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop to gut the law. However, the best way to protect and preserve the Antiquities Act is to use it visibly and vigorously, thereby demonstrating once again the broad public support it has enjoyed for more than 100 years.

The president could start with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein's bill to protect a million acres in the Mojave Desert of California. Or he could take up Maine Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud's bill to protect the scores of small islands that host seabird colonies off the coast of Maine. The president can use his authority under the Antiquities Act to take these bills and their establishing language and designate the lands in questions as new national monuments.

President Obama could also review the list of our existing national parks and monuments, many of which are in need of expansion because these areas are threatened by encroaching strip mining, drilling or other incompatible development. He could start out in the majestic expanses of southern Utah, where Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks all need additional lands to protect their archaeological sites and unique geological formations.

And at Yellowstone National Park, the migratory herds of bison, elk and other wildlife all need more space, which can be best obtained by designating the forest lands to the west as a national monument. There are many other areas where local residents are voicing support for new national monuments, including the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in Idaho, the Vermillion Basin in Colorado and the Owyhee Canyons in Oregon.

The president also has the authority to add lands to our National Wildlife Refuge System. There is an urgent need to create a system of refuges to protect the endangered greater sage grouse that inhabits the sagebrush seas that stretch across public lands in seven Western states.

In addition, the Antiquities Act could be used to protect fisheries and endangered coral systems in our marine waters. Bristol Bay off western Alaska is the most prolific of our fisheries; millions of salmon migrate through the bay to spawn throughout the river systems of Alaska. The little-known deep-water corals adjoining the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea also deserve enhanced protection.

There is much to be done, and President Obama should not wait until the eleventh hour to act. He should start now by advancing proposals, explaining the urgency of conservation, increasing the visibility of the issues at stake and asking all Americans to voice their opinions. He should invite Congress to take legislative action, making it clear that he will act if it doesn't.

A robust conservation program, following in the tradition begun by President Theodore Roosevelt, will be an enduring accomplishment for President Obama, a gift to future generations from his time in office.

Bruce Babbitt, former Interior Department secretary appointed by President Bill Clinton, lives in Washington, D.C., where he is working on conservation planning in the Amazon River Basin as a fellow of the Blue Moon Fund.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

rick reese
rick reese Subscriber
May 28, 2014 01:12 PM

Many politicians--mostly Republicans (and some Democrats as well) are complaining vociferously about the 1906 Antiquities Act that provides Presidents the authority to designate National Monuments, and Rep. Bob Bishop [R-Utah] has recently shepherded a bill through the House of Representatives to "gut the law," as Babbitt notes in his May 26 HCN guest editorial.

A few months ago, I attended a meeting in Bozeman to hear from Sec. of the Interior, Sally Jewell, and Montana Senator Jon Tester. A question from the audience to Sen. Tester asked if he thought the President would consider a new National Monument(s) for Montana. Tester said he would oppose such a thing "without a lot of local support." Sec. Jewell seconded Tester, saying she too would have to see significant local support. No mention was made of the non-local citizens of the other 49 states and what they might support for their public lands in Montana.

In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt created the Jackson Hole National Monument, vastly expanding the tiny Grand Teton National Park that had been established in 1929. Roosevelt acted in the face of overwhelming local opposition including the entire Wyoming congressional delegation, all but a few members of Wyoming State Legislature, the Teton County Commission, the vast majority of the people of Teton County, and the U.S. Forest Service. Wyoming Senator Edward Robertson called the Monument "...a foul stinking Pearl Harbor blow," and locals predicted the Monument would ruin forever the economy of Teton County. Yet today, praise for the Park from every quarter is essentially unanimous. History has shown FDR’s wisdom and political leadership was right for America.

In Utah, Rep. Bishop’s home state, there are five National Parks. They're the pride of Utahns, and an enormous economic asset generating nearly seven hundred million tourism dollars a year. Four of those five Parks were originally set-aside by American presidents as National Monuments.

If the" local support" that Sec. Jewell and Sen. Tester want for any new National Monuments had been required for the creation of National Monuments in the past, Americans visiting the valley of Jackson Hole today would likely see wall to wall condos, honkytonks and worse . Likewise, four of the five now-cherished National Parks in Rep. Bishop's home state may never have happened.

Some local support is helpful, but what's really needed for the conservation of America's extraordinary landscapes today is foresight and political leadership. Babbitt has it right. Does Barack Obama?
Ken Watts
Ken Watts
May 29, 2014 08:00 AM
"And at Yellowstone National Park, the migratory herds of bison, elk and other wildlife all need more space, which can be best obtained by designating the forest lands to the west as a national monument. There are many other areas where local residents are voicing support for new national monuments, including the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in Idaho, the Vermillion Basin in Colorado and the Owyhee Canyons in Oregon." I find this statement by Mr. Babbitt absolutely appalling. He now wants to protect the elk and bison after HE oversaw the introduction of the "Canadian" grey wolf to Yellowstone and to Idaho. The wolves have decimated the elk, moose, and have done major damage to the bison herds. These animals do not need more room because the herds are so much smaller. In addition, the lands around Yellowstone are well protected by the Forest Service and BLM. Wilderness Study Areas have been established and many area roads have been closed to protect migration routes.

Regarding Boulder-White Clouds in Idaho, very few local residents are voicing support for a National Monument. In fact, Custer County has passed a proclamation opposing a National Monument.

Regarding Jackson Hole, the area is and was public land and would not be a sea of condos.
Hunter  Kunkel
Hunter Kunkel
Jun 10, 2014 12:37 PM
@Ken Watts: Bison herds swelled from 2011 to 2013 to 4,600, up 9 percent.

Source: http://billingsgazette.com/[…]5f62-9025-1d40b97179fd.html
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 02:04 PM
I agree with Mr. Babbitt, as well as what Rick and Ken mentioned.The planet needs more not less protection.We need to expand the reasons for protecting habitat.Not for just 'scenic' reasons or mountains and trees. What about our few acres of intact Prairie that still has temporarily avoided the plow?It's just wrong that only one percent has been protected.And then we wonder why prairie species are in peril.Is not the prairie worthy of protection?The bison need a prairie preserve where they belong.The CMR wildlife refuge would be a good place, as well as additional public land surrounding the refuge.Why do locals call it a land grab when we protect land that the public already owns?It belongs to all of us, not just the few privileged locals that profit from it. So yes local support should not stop us from doing the greater good.Places like Bristol Bay in Alaska, have been threatened by a proposed massive Goldmine. This incredible intact wildlife ecosystem, one of the few remaining on the planet, should be forever protected from development just on that basis alone.