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Obama’s record-breaking creation of national monuments is an enduring gift

The three newest monuments honor places of key importance in America’s history of struggle and progress on race.

Probably you saw the headlines reporting that Barack Obama’s national-monument designations last week set an all-time record for U.S. presidents, but that’s not quite right. By my count he passed the milestone last February, with the designation of three California places as monuments to this country’s land and people.

And the bar he cleared was not low. The previous record was set by Bill Clinton at 19; he broke (by one) the tally established by Teddy Roosevelt, newly empowered by the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Obama has now added 29 to the roster, more than all his predecessors from Herbert Hoover to Lyndon Johnson combined. If you count monuments he expanded from earlier presidents’ designations, as Dana Varinsky did Monday over at Business Insider, the total is 34 (with a dual spot for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, west of Hawaii, which Obama both designated and expanded).

In doing all this Obama has made a major gift to America’s people and also to its bank of unexploited public lands from the Atlantic coast to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Of course, he has also provoked the usual carping among his antagonists about last-minute dictates and legacy building, but some context is important here as well.

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Eleven of the 15 presidents from TR onward have used the Antiquities Act to honor and protect special places, and the average is about 10 apiece. Even George W. Bush, no standout on protecting public lands, designated six.

(The four who declined to make any designations are Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and from that list I leave you to draw your own conclusions.)

It’s true that Obama has created three new monuments in his last month as president, while expanding two others, and also added two late last month. However, it is hardly unusual and certainly not unprecedented for presidents to make these proclamations in the closing weeks of their terms.

For a recent example, many will remember the tense wait in January 2001 to see if Clinton would use the Antiquities Act to further protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil development or portions of the Tongass National Forest from expanded logging (nope in both cases).

Many will also remember George W. Bush’s instant post-inaugural revocation of Clinton’s rule protecting roadless areas of American public lands, and wonder if president-elect Donald Trump will heed the calls of Republicans who want him to revoke some of Obama’s new designations.

Hard to unmake monuments

If so, he’ll need considerable help and a lot of luck. Though many have been highly contested, it appears that no president’s monument designation has ever been undone either by a successor or by Congress, and there’s nothing in the Antiquities Act specifying how that could even be approached.

(Twice, however, Congress has legislated limits on future designations, at the urging of delegations who felt, basically, enough already in our home state: Wyoming, back in the 1940s when the Grand Tetons controversy was running hot, and Alaska, where all 15 of Jimmy Carter’s monuments were situated. Presidents can still make monuments in those states, but in some cases Congress must sign off, too.)

As for legacy-building, or -burnishing, let’s dismiss that charge as silly.

Many among today’s readers have fallen in love with Zion National Park, but not one in a hundred, I’m betting, associate it with William Howard Taft, who got things started by designating Mukuntuweap National Monument. Or credit Calvin Coolidge for turning the former Fort Wood into what’s now much better known as the Statue of Liberty Monument.

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This is not to say that monument proclaimers from TR onward don’t deserve our gratitude; certainly they do. But in legacy terms it’s the places themselves that last in our awareness — not the people who signed the papers. And so it will be, after a few years, with Barack Obama’s additions.

The three newest monuments honor places of key importance in America’s history of struggle and progress on race.

  • The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in Alabama, which protects the Gaston Motel that served as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s headquarters in the campaign to win passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • The Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama, which includes the city’s old Greyhound bus station and also the site nearby where a bus carrying activists was firebombed and burned.
  • The Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina, protecting buildings central to recalling the success of freed slaves in establishing a vibrant community; amazingly, this will be the first unit of the National Park Service that has Reconstruction as its subject.

Also this week, Obama expanded an existing national monuments on the California coast in Mendocino County and in the Cascade-Siskiyou region at the California-Oregon border; both advance the Antiquities Act’s purpose of protecting valuable and sensitive natural areas.

Land and culture in the West

Obama’s designations in late December were focused on both the natural terrain and cultural history at the Bear Ears Buttes in southeast Utah and at Gold Butte just outside Las Vegas, Nevada. From the White House announcement:

There have been over 80 years of various efforts to protect the Bears Ears region, beginning with former Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes in 1936 and by Members of Congress, state, local and tribal leaders, and conservation groups in recent decades. Most recently the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and Zuni Tribe developed a proposal to protect the area, and U.S. Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz introduced the Public Lands Initiative, legislation that included a similar protection proposal for the Bears Ears landscape. 

Today’s action responds to both of these recent proposals, recognizing the areas where there is broad agreement about the need for protections, tribal engagement, and allowances for historical uses such as grazing. Today’s action also establishes a process for developing a management plan that will ensure robust opportunities for all interested stakeholders to provide input about how the monument should be managed.

All that meant nothing to Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who called the proclamation an “astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power” showing that “far-left special interest groups matter more to him than the people who have lived on and cared for Utah’s lands for generations.”

Of course, this kind of talk is of a piece with the calls by Western Republicans to open up certain national parks, along with other public lands, to private oil and gas drilling, and hopefully carries the same vanishingly small chance of going anywhere beyond a TV soundbite.

Speaking of people and history, it’s worth remembering that the first two monuments created by Obama were chosen to preserve sites of significant military history — Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Ord in California.

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And here’s the rest of the list, as prepared by the National Parks Conservation Association:

Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado (2012), Cesar Chavez National Monument in California (2012), San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington state (2013), Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico (2013), Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland (2013), First State National Historical Park in Delaware (2013), Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers Monument in Ohio (2013), Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in New Mexico (2014),

San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in California (2014), Honouliuli National Monument in Hawaii (2015), Pullman National Monument in Illinois (2015), Browns Canyon National Monument in New Mexico ((2015)), Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in California ((2015)), Waco Mammoth National Monument in Texas ((2015), Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada (2015), Mojave Trails National Monument in California (2016), Sand to Snow National Monument in California (2016),

Castle Mountains National Monument in California (2016), Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C. (2016), Stonewall National Monument in New York (2016), Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine (2016), Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in Massachusetts (2016).

Such a remarkable range of places and purpose protected by Barack Obama, all sharing the certainty that thanks to his monument designations, their identity and significance will live long past the time that the braying of Orrin Hatch et. al has faded away.

* * *

I want to mention, I think for the first time in my time doing Earth Journal, a fundraising appeal that has captured my imagination.

Over the summer I got to know Ginger Lawson and Larry Ely, who have been active in land-trust and preservation work in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. A while back Ginger sent around an email offering people a chance to thank President Obama for his leadership and to support the national parks by making a donation in his Obama’s honor to the National Park Foundation.

The gifts are tax-deductible and have no connection to Ginger and Larry or their own work except she happened to think of the idea, and then to act on it, and got the foundation to set up a campaign you can find here.