What Obama gave the West

Our 44th president proved to be a true champion who pushed many conservation measures over the finish line.


The American West should be grateful to President Barack Obama. His stewardship of land and waters has ranged from Puerto Rico to the farthest reaches of Alaska, but his conservation efforts in the Western United States stand out. He took up long-overdue energy reforms on the public lands that are owned by all Americans, and he connected the dots between energy development and the greenhouse gases produced by it that contribute to climate change.

Of course, much of the credit for Obama’s success has to go to the work of local coalitions and advocates throughout the country. But the president proved himself to be a true champion who pushed many conservation measures over the finish line.

Just months into office, Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which designated more than 2 million acres of federal land as wilderness. Ecologically important land was protected in California’s Sierra Nevada and White Mountains, on Oregon’s Mount Hood and in the high desert, in Idaho’s Owyhee Canyonlands, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and Indian Peaks Wilderness, and in New Mexico’s canyon country.

Wilderness areas were expanded on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, in the Boulder-White Clouds region of Idaho and Alpine Lakes in Washington. To the south, wilderness was protected in the Pine Grove Hills and Pine Forest Range of Nevada, the Hermosa Creek watershed near Durango, Colorado, and the Columbine Hondo in northern New Mexico. 

These lands provide clean air, clean water and countless other benefits to humans and wildlife alike. Enlarging and connecting these wild areas will increase their resilience in this era of climate change and wildlife habitat loss. Large, connected landscapes are essential for preserving biodiversity.

Obama also pursued an inclusive vision for our public lands, ensuring that our national monuments better reflect the nation’s rich cultural tapestry.

Using presidential authority under the Antiquities Act, he designated national monuments that honor the history and contributions of African-American, Native American, Hispanic and Asian communities. At the urging of several Native American tribes, Obama protected Bears Ears in Utah, one of the most culturally significant sites in the nation. This set a new model for collaborative management of sacred lands with Native American tribes at the table. He also conserved places that illuminate the history of veterans and milestones for women, labor and the LGBTQ community.

Other monuments that he designated preserve places for people to enjoy, whether it’s the whitewater mecca of Browns Canyon in central Colorado or the 346,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains monument that serves as a wild backyard for Los Angeles.

President Barack Obama announced the Every Kid in a Park initiative in 2015 as a call to action to get all children to experience America’s unparalleled outdoors, rich history and culture.
Bureau of Land Management

Obama’s Every Kid in a Park initiative allows fourth-graders and their families into national parks and public lands free. The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps put thousands of young people and veterans to work restoring and improving wildlands. 

He is also the first president to address the public lands’ contribution to climate change. Of all the greenhouse gases emitted through the nation’s energy production, about one-quarter comes from fossil fuels extracted from our public lands and waters. Satellite images show a methane cloud the size of Delaware hanging over the Four Corners area of the Southwest, where many oil and gas wells operate on public lands. The Obama administration took action to reduce waste and leaks of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas.

His administration instituted reforms to outdated policies for federal coal, oil and gas leases. He protected lands that are too wild — or culturally sacred — to drill in Alaska, the Arctic Ocean, the Thompson Divide in Colorado, the Badger-Two Medicine region in Montana and the Wyoming Range. 

During his eight years in office, more than 15,000 megawatts of wind, solar and geothermal projects were permitted. When Obama became president, no solar projects existed on public lands. Now, 18 solar projects are complete or under construction, including some of the largest in the world. Efforts to improve siting, such as the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in California, have protected millions of acres of key wildlife habitat. 

But dangers lie ahead. Attacks on conservation began during the very first week of the 115th Congress. Among the very first orders of business was a House rule designed to make it easier for Congress to sell off national lands, along with bills that would gut the Antiquities Act.

Conservationists face a tough battle ahead to protect the West’s public lands. But to borrow a phrase from the Western writer Edward Abbey, Obama’s conservation legacy needs no defense, it just needs strong defenders.


Jamie Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the president of The Wilderness Society.

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