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Phil Taylor and Kevin Bogardus, E&E reporters
May 23, 2014

President Obama’s designation Wednesday of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico showed that the second-term commander in chief is willing to take political risks to burnish his conservation legacy.

Not only was it the largest monument — by far — that he’s designated using his Antiquities Act powers, but it was also the first that lacked universal local support.

While the 500,000-acre monument was backed by a broad coalition of conservation, sportsmen’s, Hispanic and faith leaders, as well as key local government officials and the state’s two Democratic senators, it was opposed by the local sheriff, ranchers and Rep. Steven Pearce (R-N.M.), whose district includes those lands.

Republicans on Capitol Hill lambasted the designation as a symbol of growing federal overreach with some pledging to redouble efforts to roll back the Antiquities Act.

The proclamation showed Obama’s willingness to preserve lands his administration feels are in the nation’s interest — for recreation, scientific inquiry and historical preservation, among other reasons — even if some locals disagree.

But by calculation or by chance, all 11 of Obama’s national monuments have been designated in states that voted for him in 2012 — California, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington.

Many now wonder if he’ll venture into less-welcoming states.

Obama’s green base is proposing that he extend his monument powers to Idaho, Utah and Arizona, states with strong libertarian streaks and deep-seated mistrust of federal meddling. They’re also pushing Obama to pen protections for — of all places — Nevada’s Gold Butte, the site of Interior’s recent standoff with rancher Cliven Bundy.

“He doesn’t have a lot to lose if he does designate something in Utah,” said Tim Wagner, who leads the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign from Salt Lake City and is lobbying the president to designate the 1.4-million-acre Greater Canyonlands National Monument west of Moab.

Obama’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are prodding him, too, saying monument designations, even in red states, can pay political dividends.

“I don’t think there’s a political danger nationwide,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation. “I think more people support it than oppose it. I would love to see some in Arizona.”

Yet every monument Obama declares offers more fodder for Republicans, ranchers, off-highway vehicle groups and energy interests, who will take any shots they can to roll back the president’s Antiquities Act powers.

“The more he does, the greater the push-back will be to change Antiquities,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the subcommittee’s chairman. “So if he really wants to keep the power long-term — for the next two years — he’ll be very discreet in how he does it.”

Bishop has already pushed a bill through the House that would require environmental reviews of monuments more than 5,000 acres in size, while blocking Obama from designating more than one monument per state, per term — which would have halted Organ Mountains.

President Clinton designated or expanded nearly two dozen monuments covering more than 5 million acres, including controversial monuments in Montana and Utah.

Clinton’s 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — designated in the heat of the 1996 election — in southern Utah blocked development of a major coal deposit and enraged Utah elected officials, fueling much of the state’s distrust of Washington, D.C.

“The original presidents used [the Antiquities Act] to preserve special areas,” Bishop said. “These presidents are abusing it to make political statements.”

While it carried a degree of controversy, Obama’s Organ Mountains designation put neither of New Mexico’s two Democratic senators — Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall — at risk, Bishop said.

Obama could see blowback from monuments in conservative states, but the moves would be a boon locally, Grijalva said.

“There’s an initial backlash,” he said. “When Clinton did Utah, Grand Staircase, there was huge opposition. And now, the same people that opposed, defend it, because eco-tourism and the revenue it brings into the state. So it turns around.”

Other areas under consideration

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell yesterday said there are no other monuments “on the radar” but said she’s undeterred by the Republican criticism. Jewell said she will continue exploring executive action for conservation proposals that are “mature.”

“When we follow the guidelines of the Antiquities Act and work with communities and there’s the kind of support that has been seen in these monument designations, the criticism is a bit unfounded,” she said.

Jewell, who will be in Las Cruces today to celebrate the Organ Mountains designation, said she spoke at length with the Border Patrol to ensure that Obama’s proclamation would not hamper border security and ensured that grazing, hunting and flood control projects could continue unfettered.

Obama said earlier this week that he is “not finished” taking executive action to conserve public lands from oil and gas development, mining and roads.
One proposal that may get more attention is central Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds, which consist of nearly 600,000 acres or roadless forests, alpine lakes and salmon-filled rivers.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has spent more than a decade trying to designate much of those lands as wilderness and has urged the president to let the legislative process stay the course.

Now that Simpson has won his primary — his re-election is seen as safe in November — Obama may see political room to start a monument discussion. 

The proposal is already supported by one local county, wilderness advocates, local businesses, mountain bikers and former Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, who is also the state’s former Democratic governor. It’s opposed by another county and some off-highway vehicle enthusiasts.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) has his own bill to designate the 22,650-acre Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in the hills north of Las Vegas to protect and showcase the area’s dense array of ice age fossils of mammoths, ground sloths, American lions, camels and horses.

Like Simpson, he’s not ready to give up on the legislative process. Bishop, for one, said he supports Horsford’s bill and is looking for ways to amend it to comply with House earmark rules.

“We prefer for our legislation to go forward,” Horsford said yesterday. “It has been worked by the local community to create the boundaries in a very specific and tailored way that the president would not necessarily be able to do [under] the Antiquities Act.”

Still, if Congress makes no progress, Horsford said Obama has a right to act.

“Part of the reason we’re having this designation debate is the [Natural] Resources Committee has steadfastly refused to create any designation, expand any national park, do any refuge,” said Grijalva. “So the consequence is it kind of moves into the responsibility of the president.”

Bishop said he fears that Obama is checking off lands the Bureau of Land Management identified for protections in a confidential memo he unearthed in 2010. From that list, Obama has already designated Organ Mountains, northern New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte and Washington state’s San Juan Islands.

Other lands on that list include Gold Butte, Utah’s San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa, Arizona’s northwest Sonoran Desert and New Mexico’s Otero Mesa.

A logjam in Congress?

The committee has passed bills to designate wilderness in Michigan and Nevada and designate a national monument in Northern California, among others, though not nearly as many conservation bills as have been passed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Congress has only passed one wilderness bill in the past five years, and both chambers share some of the blame.

Antiquities Act critics insist that the president’s monuments agenda is being driven largely by his counselor, John Podesta, who founded the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which has been a driving force for new monuments. “It’s pretty good politics,” Podesta, who was Clinton’s chief of staff, said of monument designations back in summer 2012 while at CAP.

Podesta shared the stage with Obama yesterday during the Organ Mountains signing ceremony at Interior Department headquarters, and the two made the walk there together from the White House.

Obama in his speech 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.

“The more than three dozen bills that are logjammed in Congress, after all, are both Republican and Democratic bills, and members of both parties have an interest in getting conservation moving again,” said CAP senior fellow Matt Lee-Ashley, who is a former Obama Interior aide.

He noted that Obama’s monuments protecting Colorado’s Chimney Rock and the home of Col. Charles Young in Ohio were supported the Republican lawmakers representing those districts and that future monuments will continue to enjoy “overwhelming support from the local community.”

“I would expect that [Obama] will continue to take a community-driven approach, push Congress to get moving and — when needed — use his authority to help communities protect the places they love,” Lee-Ashley said.