What the president can do right now for conservation


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 system in our marine waters. Bristol Bay off western Alaska is the most prolific of our fisheries, the passage through which millions of salmon migrate 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, generating 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, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He 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.

May 13, 2014 03:36 PM
What former secretary Babbitt proposes is okay as far as it goes, but it's really playing small-ball when what's needed is a President ready to take bold action. President Teddy Roosevelt set aside more than 200 million acres of national forests, national wildlife refuges, and national monuments. President Carter designated more than 70 million acres of national monuments in Alaska. President Clinton set aside a three million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a million-acre Missouri Breaks NM, and nearly 60 million acres of national forests under the Roadless Rule. President GW Bush even got in the act by setting aside the 90 million-acre Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. If Obama wants to be remembered for doing something meaningful for conservation, he ought to begin by establishing the 20 million-acre Northern Rockies National Monument along the lines of the proposal being pushed by numerous conservation groups in the region, and not be content with a handful of seriously compromised, minimalist proposals designed to gain the backing of shortsighted, local politicians.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
May 13, 2014 08:05 PM
What he could really do is ask for a massive funding infusion for the massive maintenance backlog in our existing units. What he could also do is make sure the NPS' centennial is duly commemorated, and said commemoration isn't neoliberally privatized. Don't hold your breath over any of this.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
May 14, 2014 08:04 AM
Thanks Mr. Babbitt well said.We need to do this, every day more land and nature is impacted by oil and gas development, more habitat lost, even Conservation reserve program acres lost to more plowing and farming. No mention of Preserving any of the Great Plains or native prairie left ,the most endangered ecosystem in North America.
Natalie Bennon
Natalie Bennon
May 14, 2014 11:42 AM
Thank you, Bruce Babbitt, for being such a conservation leader. I wish more of these pieces would explain that often times, national monument designation is on existing public lands, but simply clarifying that this part of existing FS or BLM lands needs to be managed differently to protect certain resources. Perhaps it's a nuance no one but me cares about. But perhaps it helps diffuse the "government land grab" argument.
Linda VanFossan
Linda VanFossan
May 14, 2014 11:59 AM
Mr. Babbitt, I sincerely hope you will send this exact article in a letter to Mr. Obama and use your influence in whatever way you can to push for more protection of our public lands. Now is the time for concerned Americans to act!
Steve Laster
Steve Laster
May 15, 2014 07:27 AM

Since we are on the way to exceeding the carrying capacity of our habitat, it seems counterproductive to lock up more lands in the name of conservation.  As the population grows, we humans are going to need more land for energy development, food production and living space, not less.  Unless we have increased access to natural resources the next generation will likely produce a few more Cliven Bundy types.

Or perhaps instead of waiting for the eleventh hour the  President should address population growth in his conservation strategy.  Now that would be a gift to future generations.  
But simply to conserve more land in the name of environmental health -  that's analogous to my own motto:  For every beer can you recycle there's another baby born.
Tom Ribe
Tom Ribe Subscriber
May 16, 2014 09:38 AM
We recently had a new national monument designated in New Mexico on BLM land near Taos. The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument made zero changes in how the BLM was managing the land before it's designation. We still have cows in the desert, off road vehicles etc. So what's the point? If an area doesn't have real protections and have management by the National Park Service, it is business as usual with oil and gas and cows and motors. So if we are going to have national monuments, let's protect the environment in the process.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger Subscriber
May 16, 2014 09:57 AM
I agree with Steve . It is so obvious that all these problems are related to to many humans. All these Canaries in the coal mine we are told about every day. Climate change not enough fish left in the oceans, Cannot even feed ourselves organically have to have pesticides and herbicides for more and more yield less and less wildlife. Why can we not at least start talking about this educating people ,should not have more than one or two kids , it is Irresponsible, even change the tax code to reflect this. As far as making national monuments and wildlife refuges, to me if this is already on public land ,BLM land ,it cannot be called a land grab, the public already owns it.
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
May 21, 2014 09:20 PM
     Mr. Ribe notes an ugly truth -- modern-day designations are political theater designed to placate environmentalists while continuing to serve destructive industries. In a recent example, the Browns Canyon designation protects nothing but the status quo.
     The wilderness- and National Park/Monument-designation processes are a fiasco. Several years ago for the Spanish Peaks Wilderness designation, areas that the oil and gas industry wanted were cut out of consideration; grazing leases remained; and a road was “cherry-stemmed” to a non-functioning gold mine owned by a serial federal blackmailer. Because of the designation, the road was reopened and maintained at public expense. Some may be interested to know that bicycles were banned in the designation, which protected mostly high-altitude rock and ice. These were the only changes for an area that the Forest Service said that they had already been managing as wilderness.
     With scenic background in place, posing senators, commissioners, and land-management officials took credit for a superlative example of “conservation.”
     No more designations should proceed without real protections. Bogus designations distract the public from real conservation and prolong destructive activities.
Audrey Peterman
Audrey Peterman
Jun 01, 2014 05:37 PM
As an American of African descent who is a dedicated conservationist, I couldn't be more thrilled to read this article. The emphasis on public lands as our collective heritage is so welcome, and really needs to be reiterated over and over in the mass media, so that urbanites and Americans of color in particular who don't know of this legacy can be brought into the conservation camp. I strive to help do this every day. Thank you, High Country News! Thank you, Secretary Babbitt!