President Obama’s record on public lands protection has been spotty – as of January 2013, he’d opened more than twice as many acres to drilling as he’d conserved. Lately, though, the POTUS has been on a bit of a roll. Over the last 16 months, Obama has used the Antiquities Act – the 1906 law that gives the President executive authority to declare national monuments – to protect sites including the San Juan Islands, 1,600 acres along Northern California’s coastline, and New Mexico’s vast Rio Grande del Norte landscape.
Earlier this week, Obama dropped the Antiquities hammer again – this time on the Organ Mountains, a rugged, spectacular range overlooking Las Cruces in southern New Mexico. The designation, officially the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, encompasses nearly half a million acres, making it Obama’s largest by far. In addition to its scenic beauty, the region is home to thousands of archaeological sites, 210 species of birds, and several endemic species that are found nowhere else on earth. Rest easy, botanists, secure in the knowledge that the Organ Mountains pincushion cactus is forever safe from oil and gas drilling.
Of course, the Organ Mountains designation is more about politics than cacti. Two months ago, the House of Representatives voted to restrict the executive’s monument-creating authority under the guise of increasing public input. Among other changes, H.R. 1459, a bill spearheaded by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, would prevent the president from unilaterally declaring two monuments in a single state during one four-year term – a stricture that would have kept Obama from designating another monument in New Mexico after already tabbing Rio Grande del Norte.
It’s easy, then, to see Organ Mountains as a subtle middle finger to the legislative branch from a president who’s increasingly fed up with Congress’ obstructionism, not to mention its abysmal record on environmental issues. Alternately, Obama may fear Democrats losing the Senate this fall. Any bill restricting the creation of monuments would be D.O.A. in the current Senate; a year from now, that might not be the case. Maybe the president is deploying the Antiquities Act while its use is still unfettered. Or maybe he didn’t relish the prospect of another Bruce Babbitt tongue-lashing (check out the former Secretary of the Interior's Writers on the Range opinion piece).
Or perhaps Organ Mountains’ time had simply arrived. Like many candidates for monument designation, the region’s protection has been the object of multiple congressional bills. The most recent, coauthored by U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall – both New Mexico Democrats – was introduced in December, and it appears that Obama’s designation resembles their bill in most particulars. “This (White House announcement) was a long time coming and really an incredible vindication of all of the efforts that so many local community leaders have put on for over a decade now,” Heinrich told the Albuquerque Journal earlier this week.
Inevitably, not everyone was pleased. “With this land grab, the President is once again going out of his way to derail any attempt for form (sic) a consensus, and do what local people want,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, R.-N.M. Back in March 2013, Pearce had introduced his own Organ Mountains monument legislation that would have protected around 54,000 acres – just one-ninth as many as Obama preserved.
While politicians like Pearce and Bishop are fond of invoking “what local people want,” communities tend to support the protection of public lands and the economic benefits those lands provide. That’s why even controversial monuments, like Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante, today enjoy overwhelming public support. Considering that Organ Mountains is expected to generate up to $7.4 million per year in tourism and new business opportunities, our newest monument will likely be just as popular.
Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.