The Obama administration is preparing to designate areas in New Mexico and California off-limits to development under its executive authority, according to individuals familiar with the matter, a move that signals a bolder public-lands policy in the president’s second term.
The individuals, who asked not to be identified because a final decision has not been made, said that the White House is poised to act unless Congress moves soon on legislation that will afford similar protections.
One of the two sites, the nearly 500,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region near Las Cruces, N.M., is twice as large as the largest national monument established by President Obama. The other site is about 1,600 acres on California’s central coast known as the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands.
Although Congress traditionally designates protection for public lands, presidents have used their authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to set aside prized areas.
Obama drew an enthusiastic response from Democrats and conservationists when he said in his State of the Union speech that he would use his authority “to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.”
The monument designations would address a longtime criticism among conservationists that the president has not done enough to safeguard ecologically sensitive and historically important federal lands. They represent one of the most powerful ways he can use his executive powers to achieve policies opposed by Congress.
But such a move is sure to anger some constituencies that rely on public lands for uses such as ranching, mining and motorized-vehicle recreation. They see any new protections as an encroachment on those activities.
Obama started his term by signing a major conservation bill — a bipartisan compromise forged shortly before he took office — but Congress has been largely deadlocked during his tenure. The last Congress was the first since 1942 not to designate a single piece of wilderness as a national park or monument.
The president declared five national monuments last spring, the largest encompassing 242,500 acres. Former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, who served under President Bill Clinton for eight years, suggested that the president put aside one acre of federal land for every acre he leased for oil, gas, coal and mineral extraction. The Center for American Progress, whose chairman, John D. Podesta, joined the White House in January, issued a report showing that 7.3 million acres of federal land have been leased for oil and gas drilling as of December, while 2.9 million acres have been permanently protected.
Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, said that “there’s no other issue in conservation that fits better” within the president’s new approach of using his executive authority. “Congress has failed to act, the president has the authority, and the communities are ready,” he said.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation,questioned why Obama would invoke the Antiquities Act to protect the Stornetta tract when the House approved adding it to a 1,100-mile marinemonument in July.
The unanimous vote on a bill introduced by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) would add it to the California Coast National Monument. But the Senate has yet to act.
“It would be so much better if you just allowed the Senate to do their work,” Bishop said. “Anything he creates by the Antiquities Act can be undone.”
No monuments have ever been repealed by subsequent presidents, according to former Interior Department solicitor John Leshy, and a 1938 U.S. attorney general’s opinion stated that subsequent presidents lack such power. But in a couple of instances, presidents such as Woodrow Wilson have shrunk their boundaries, and Congress has exercised its power to rescind national monument designations.
The office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said her companion bill to designate Stornetta is working its way through the Senate. The project received $2 million in the recently passed omnibus budget bill, one of five such land acquisitions that were funded.
Scott Schneider, chief executive of Visit Mendocino County, said that he and other advocates have grown impatient with Congress’s pace on what is seen as a noncontroversial proposal that could boost tourism. When Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the area in November, he noted, “we didn’t have a single person stand up and object.”
“This is a small rural area where everyone’s against something,” Schneider said.
The move to designate Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is more contentious, and more significant. Republicans and Democrats agree that the area has historic, cultural and environmental significance. There are petroglyphs from three American Indian societies in its canyons, as well as desert grasslands and a petrified forest.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) has authored legislation that would create a 498,000-acre national monument, about half of which would be managed as wilderness. Rep. Stevan Pearce (R-N.M.), however, has proposed a bill that would establish a 54,800-acre monument without any wilderness areas.
While the Senate bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), stipulates that grazing permits would be maintained, local and national ranching groups argue that it would hurt their operations. Some law enforcement officials, such as Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison, have also said that the move would make it more difficult to monitor illegal activity near the Mexican border.
Dustin Van Liew, executive director for federal lands at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said that in the wake of national monument designations at Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante, “we have seen grazing over time be diminished or stopped altogether.”
Dona Ana County Commissioner Billy G. Garrett said that he and others want a national monument designation, because it will keep “the focus of growth” within a limited corridor while leaving other parts of the county untouched.
Jewell toured the site Jan. 24 with Heinrich and Udall. As part of a community hearing during Jewell’s visit, Pearce sent a letter to all three officials. “The best way to form a collaborative agreement that respects the needs of all our constituents is to let the legislative process run its course,” he wrote.
Heinrich said in an interview that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has endorsed his proposal because it allows for immediate pursuit into the monument’s jurisdiction and creates a buffer zone for law enforcement operations.
Another wilderness area that the administration is considering for protection encompasses 500,000 acres in east-central Idaho known as the Boulder-White Clouds region. Efforts by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) to create three wilderness areas near the Sawtooth National Recreation Area have failed, leading proponents, including former interior secretary Cecil D. Andrus, to push for designation under the Antiquities Act.
The roadless, mountainous region is a watershed for downstream fisheries and needs the protection Obama could give it, Andrus said. He hopes Jewell can persuade the president to include it in a monument designation, he said, but it does not appear to be included with the other two.