Late-term Obama, GOP clash over monuments

Late-term Obama, GOP clash over monuments
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President Obama likely isn’t finished using his authority to unilaterally protect land and water as national monuments.

Environmentalists are hoping that Obama will continue his string of monument designations in his final months in office, following the footsteps of many of his predecessors who used the end of their presidencies for major land protections.

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Conservationists hope Obama will set aside a massive area in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod, a large swath of land in Utah that American Indian tribes believe to be sacred, an area upstream of the Grand Canyon that’s been eyed for uranium mining and a mountain range near El Paso, Texas, among other locations.

With Congress gridlocked and unable to pass major legislation regarding public lands, greens, Democrats and local advocates near the proposed monuments are calling on Obama to keep bypassing Congress to protect land and water areas.

But nearly every proposal to protect an area from various types of harm and development carries opposition from some locals and industries whose activities could be curtailed or stopped.

Republicans also want to stop Obama and repeal the 1906 Antiquities Act, which the president has used to protect lands.

They say Obama is stretching the law with his monument designations to take unilateral action when Congress will not help, like he has on immigration and climate change.

Obama in recent weeks designated two large monuments. He greatly expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii, and created the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument from donated land in northern Maine.

Obama has now created or expanded 26 monuments, protecting more than 548 million acres of land and water, more than any previous president.

Obama shows no sign of stopping his streak, and the White House is unapologetic.

“President Obama has a strong record of protecting our nation’s natural and cultural resources, including by protecting more lands and waters than any other administration in history,” Christy Goldfuss, managing director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), said in a statement.

“The president will continue to embrace a unique approach that includes consulting with local communities and leaders, helping our nation respond to the impacts of climate change, and preserving historic and cultural sites that help tell the full American story,” she said.

CEQ, which takes the lead in evaluating and studying monument proposals, declined to comment on any of the specific proposals it is considering.

To Democrats and their allies, Obama needs to close out his presidency with major new monuments in order to seal a strong conservation legacy.

“Given the fact that it has been impossible to try to create public parks, given the reluctance and the outright opposition of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, it is left to the president to designate what should have been and could have been under more normal situations ... considered logically part of a designation,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Grijalva is leading the charge for the Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, meant to stop potential uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is pushing hard for the Bear’s Ears National Monument in Utah and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean.

“What the president does on these is going to really determine whether his legacy is just good or whether it’s great. And that’s because of their scale,” said Sharon Boccino, the group’s director for land and wildlife.

“They both are unique areas, and both are threatened,” she said. “So his action is needed to make sure that future generations are going to be able to enjoy them as we can now.”

All of the monuments proposed are on land or water that the federal government owns, a requirement for monument designation.

Char Miller, an environmental policy professor at Pomona College, said Obama’s almost certain to make multiple designations before he leaves the White House.

“What he’s demonstrated in the last two weeks is his strong willingness to use that act as long as it’s on the books,” Miller said.

He said that the most likely new monuments would fit patterns Obama has shown in previous monuments, like designations to honor minorities or American Indian tribes, or to protect an ecologically important area from climate change.

But to conservatives, the national monuments are an antiquated and unnecessary idea, and only Congress should have that kind of power.

“It doesn’t give Congress any say. But more importantly, it doesn’t give the states any say in this matter,” said Nick Loris, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“And so to unilaterally make these decisions and take power away from local interests who will have the responsibility and the proper incentive to manage that land much better according to their needs — both economically and environmentally — is something that shouldn’t be done,” he said.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Overnight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe House GOP rolls out energy proposal to counter Democrats offshore drilling ban MORE (R-Utah) has for many years sponsored legislation to significantly curtail the use of the Antiquities Act, particularly when the states hosting the monuments object. The House has passed it previously, but Obama has vowed to veto it.

But Miller said the Antiquities Act as it stands is, in a way, a powerful tool for Republicans.

“They’re getting something out of the fact that the act exists and the president is using it, which is they can go to the base and say ‘we’re really opposed to it!’ So why not rewrite the law,” he said. “They would get clobbered if they did that.”

Miller said environmental groups have successfully rallied enough support behind parks and monuments that any attempt to curtail Obama’s authority would get strong pushback from the public.

It’s also a bad moment for Republicans who oppose federal land control given the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year.

“Malheur really undercut the capacity of people like Rob Bishop to make a sane case against the public lands,” Miller said. “They crossed a line. And the line is that you do not use violence as a way to produce democratic results.”