May 22, 2014
Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, May 22, 2014
After designating his largest national monument to date, President Obama yesterday said he’s far from finished using his executive powers to protect public lands.
Over the howls of several Republican leaders, Obama signed a proclamation at the Interior Department setting aside 496,000 acres of southern New Mexico mountains and grasslands from future oil and gas development, mining claims and new roads.
The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, he said, will preserve towering 9,000-foot monoliths east of Las Cruces as well as habitat for deer, antelope, falcons and rare plants, and archaeological treasures documenting more than 10,000 years of human history, from American Indians to Apollo astronauts.
“Anyone who’s ever seen the Organ Mountains that overlook Las Cruces, New Mexico, will tell you that they are a spectacular sight,” Obama said alongside Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the New Mexico Democrats whose legislation the monument is modeled after. “You can see it today, and I want to make sure that future generations can see it, as well.”
Obama touted the lands’ importance to American Indians, hikers, hunters and scientists and cited an independent study estimating that the designation would generate more than $7 million in additional economic activity annually in the region.
But Obama also promised more monument signing ceremonies before he leaves office in January 2017, a statement that is sure to embolden conservation groups as much as it angers some congressional Republicans.
“I’ve preserved more than 3 million acres of public lands for future generations, and I am not finished,” Obama said, drawing loud applause. “I’m searching for more opportunities to preserve federal lands where communities are speaking up, because wherever I see an opening to get things done for the American people, I’m going to take it.”
Obama, who walked to the signing ceremony from the White House alongside his counselor, John Podesta, the former president of the Center for American Progress, blamed an absentee Congress for failing to enact all but one wilderness bill over the past five years.
He cited a report co-authored by CAP last March that highlights 10 conservation bills that have been introduced in Congress a combined 52 times over the past 30 years — but have yet to be signed into law.
Those bills include proposals to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of Idaho’s Boulder and White Clouds mountains, along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front and at Nevada’s Gold Butte, the site of Interior’s recent standoff with rancher Cliven Bundy.
Udall and Heinrich’s S. 1805, which evolved from earlier legislation from Bingaman, has yet to receive a hearing in the Democratic-controlled Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“As I’ve said before, I want to work with anyone in Congress who is ready to get to work and shares these goals, but recently they haven’t gotten the job done,” Obama said. “I’m here to pick up a little bit of the slack.”
Yesterday’s proclamation met a chorus of protest from Republican leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Rep. Steven Pearce (R-N.M.), who represents the monument area and has sponsored his own bill to designate a vastly smaller area.
Critics claimed the designation could hamper the U.S. Border Patrol’s ability to secure the Mexican border — a charge U.S. Customs and Border Protection denies — and called it an abuse of executive powers that undermines the wishes of the local congressman.
“If he is comfortable making his largest national monument with the opposition of local representatives, what does that mean for the rest of us?” Murkowski said yesterday in a statement. She said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was reneging on her promise last October to not pursue monument designations in places where there is significant opposition.
Bishop accused Obama of showing a “total disregard” for the threat of human and drug trafficking in the border region and said a monument designation could do nothing but exacerbate the risk. “For that, the president should be held personally accountable,” he said.
But CBP in a statement this week said the designation would “in no way limit our ability to perform our important border security mission, and in fact provides important flexibility.”
Whether that remains true depends in large part on how the Bureau of Land Management administers the lands, something that won’t come into focus for years as it crafts a new management plan.
But the proclamation does state plainly that it does not affect a 2006 memorandum of understanding between federal lands agencies and the Department of Homeland Security to cooperatively combat security threats along the border.
While the proclamation closes no roads, it prohibits new roads or trails for motorized vehicles — although it makes exceptions for public safety or to protect monument resources.
It also orders BLM not to interfere with military flight training and to continue administering grazing leases and permits under existing law and policies “consistent with the protection” of the monument.
Notably, the proclamation does not, and cannot, release lands along the Mexican border from their current protection as wilderness study areas, a designation enabled by Congress that limits motorized access and, some would argue, inhibits Border Patrol. Only the Udall-Heinrich bill could release those areas to enhance patrols.
The monument designation was hailed by numerous conservation, sportsmen’s, tribal and green business leaders as well as Democrats and local elected officials.
The Organ Mountains “tell the story of centuries of conflict, boundary disputes and reconciliations with Mexico,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “Many Latino families in the Southwest trace their roots to the region, and its natural beauty continues to draw people today.”
The monument, Obama’s 11th, follows his designation in late 2012 of the César E. Chávez National Monument in California, which also recognized Latino history.
Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the conservation Lands Foundation, called yesterday’s proclamation “one of the most important conservation actions” of Obama’s presidency.
The monument is more than twice as big as Obama’s second-largest monument, northern New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte, which he designated just over a year ago.
“He demonstrated strong conservation leadership and gave an enduring gift to America,” O’Donnell said. “Our children will benefit from unspoiled natural areas and places that honor the diverse cultures and heritage that make America great.”
Yet Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act still trails President Clinton’s.
Clinton used the 1906 law nearly two dozen times, designating 19 national monuments and expanding three existing monuments to protect more than 5 million acres, according to National Park Service data.