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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Bill Willy on 01/17/2017 - 10:17 am.

    Yeah, but . . .

    I may have missed it, but I didn’t see “Minnesota’s Arrowhead” on the list.

    A person would think the area that is one of the primary sources of 10% of world’s fresh water supply (the St. Louis River is Lake Superior’s largest tributary), possibly the already designated Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Area and the Rainy River’s extensive water system, would qualify for “National Monument” status for Highly Practical (as in the case of Lake Superior and that huge fresh water supply, on “National Security” grounds), as well as the obvious aesthetic reasons.

    There are still three days left, but I get the feeling that for all the (well-founded) opposition to copper-nickel mining in Northern Minnesota, a prime opportunity for “silver bullet success” may have been missed.

    I urge anyone who may have the (still-current) President’s phone number (or anyone who knows anyone who does) to give him a call and ask him to whip up a quick and simple last minute Monumental Gift for Minnesota.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 01/18/2017 - 06:27 am.

    Land grab!!

    That land belongs to the States, keep the Federal Government away from it. Celebrating Federal overreach always amazes me.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/18/2017 - 11:21 am.

      As much as

      Celebrating landscape destruction and environmental degradation amazes us. Why not say what you mean, it’s easier(and cheaper) for development interests to coerce state and local authorities into acquiescing to their demands than it is to do so at the federal level. Folks of Mr. Smith’s mindset will not rest until every tree is cut, every chunk of ore mined, every moving bit of water dammed, every wetland drained, and every lake ringed in multi-million dollar “cabins” for the wealthy. As long as a bit remains for their personal enjoyment, to hell with the rest.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 01/18/2017 - 03:12 pm.

    Matt, I love trees.

    I built forts in them as a kid and build nice deer stands in them as an adult. I cut trees and heated our house with them for most of my youth. I have planted thousands of white and red pine up here in Nortern Minn. Amazing thing about trees is they continually are growing, it is called a sustainable natural resource. Logging helps the forest stay healthy with new growth to old growth existing next to each other.
    As far as cabins on lakes, if you own the land, get a building permit and want to build good for you. If own the land and want to pitch a tent on it good for you…
    The land around my home town on the Range was ringed with “ore dumps” and mine pits that were going to be a scar on Mother Earth forever (according to the hippies in the 60’s) Last year I shot a few grouse on those old “ore dumps” and you can catch northern pike off the shore in the mine pits… Hippies (I unfortunately was one) wrong again… Live long enough you see many many things…
    Again, as I stated, celebrating Fedeal land grab amazes me.

    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 01/18/2017 - 06:16 pm.

      I too am amazed

      Thank God for Republicans like John F. Lacey and Theodore Roosevelt and the Antiquities Act of 1906. I wish to thank them (and President Obama) for keeping so many lands public for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/18/2017 - 09:16 pm.

      Amazing then

      How the woods managed just fine until we came along, there’s this thing called fire you know, that works a lot better than logging, trees are evolved for it. I wonder why I can’t look out my window at endless white pine forests, you know, like what existed as recently as 150 years ago? But anyway, thanks for proving my final point (good thing you like grouse and pike as opposed to caribou, elk, songbirds etc…)

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 01/19/2017 - 12:18 pm.

    Matt, do you think trees grow forever

    (like in Never Never Land) or do think the forest is trying to regenerate itself with new life and fire is the tool that Mother Nature uses to achieve this? I’m not sure where you live but I see bear, deer, foxes, songbirds and other wildlife daily from my place here on the Range. Don’t see elk or caribou but will keep an eye out. Strangely, I saw very little of that when I lived in the Twin Cities…. Maybe more Federal over reach would have helped that issue of not seeing wildlife in Mpls.

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