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Know the West

Politics of the possible


Bruce Babbitt loves to tell this story: At a White House social function in the late 1990s, Babbitt, who was Bill Clinton’s secretary of the Interior, finally got a brief moment alone with his boss. He used it to pass him a note that read: “TR: 230 million acres, WJC: ??” It was a shorthand way to compare Clinton’s public-lands conservation record with that of Theodore Roosevelt.

Babbitt caught Clinton at a good time; it was the president’s second term, and he was eager to establish his legacy, and also, if possible, to divert attention from his administration’s simmering scandals. By the time Clinton left the White House, he had created or expanded 22 national monuments, covering some 6 million acres in the West. He did this by wielding the executive authority that TR himself had signed into law — the 1906 Antiquities Act.

That presidents enjoy using their executive authority should come as no surprise, especially when they’re facing a Congress that reflexively opposes almost everything they do. In the past two years, Barack Obama has used his own power to keep immigrant families together, to sign a treaty with China reducing greenhouse gases, and, yes, to create a bunch of new national monuments in the West.  Most of them, like Clinton’s, are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. When our new Washington, D.C., correspondent, Elizabeth Shogren, examined the striking similarities between the conservation policies of the Clinton and Obama administrations, she uncovered an important common denominator: John Podesta.

Podesta, who served both presidents during their second terms, is an incredibly influential behind-the-scenes practitioner of the power game. The idea of playing “three-dimensional chess” has become a political cliché, but according to Carol Browner, Obama’s former climate czar, Podesta is a genuine master of the art.

Podesta was raised on the streets of Chicago and has spent most of his life inside the Beltway, and yet his most enduring legacy is likely to be out here, in the West. (Podesta is not quite done with politics; he’s currently directing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.) In this issue, we feature Shogren’s profile of Podesta and give a brief history of the Antiquities Act. We also take a look at Clinton-era monuments in Colorado and Montana and a potential new one in California.

One lesson is clear: Bold White House proclamations don’t automatically change how these pieces of public land are managed. Conflicts over grazing or energy development or archaeological preservation tend to persist, partly because the new monuments try, and fail, to please everyone involved. But as John Hart’s essay on the proposed Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument observes, simply calling a place a national monument somehow opens our eyes to its natural wonders. And in a world increasingly dominated by human activity, that’s a worthwhile legacy for anyone.