Preserving Scenic Beauty, or Political Conflict?

by Greg Walcher on March 26, 2015

When President Obama used his executive authority to declare Brown’s Canyon in Colorado a national monument, he followed a proud tradition, and re-opened a festering political wound at the same time. It was the 16th time Obama has used authority under the Antiquities Act to create national monuments, increasing land and water “protected” against future activity by 260 million acres, far more than any other President. He is just getting started.

Brown's Canyon, by Steve Garufi

Brown’s Canyon, by Steve Garufi

To be clear, the authority itself is one of the great legacies of the original conservation movement sparked by Theodore Roosevelt. He began by establishing 53 national wildlife refuges, beginning with Pelican Island in Florida. He also zealously added to the national park system, starting with Crater Lake in Oregon, Cave of the Winds in South Dakota, and Mesa Verde in Colorado.

In 1905 Roosevelt pushed legislation to create the U.S. Forest Service, but he actually considered the next year’s American Antiquities Act his proudest legislative victory for conservation. It allows the President to establish national monuments by executive order, to preserve features of historic, prehistoric, and scientific interest, and to forbid unauthorized damage to such features. Within days of its passage, Roosevelt tested his new authority by establishing Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, and a few weeks later the Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona. He soon followed by setting aside Mesa Verde in Colorado, Cinder Cone and Lassen Peak in California, and Mount Olympus in Washington. His crowning achievement under the Act was also the largest: the Grand Canyon.

Other Presidents continued such progress, with William Howard Taft designating Rainbow Bridge in Utah, Colorado National Monument, and 9 others. Congress later turned many such designations into full-fledged national parks, but all over the country the first step has often been a monument designation by the President. In fact, a majority of America’s national parks were first created as monuments by Presidents acting under that authority.

So why would Obama’s continuation of such proud traditions open festering wounds? Lest you think this is just a history lesson, there is a very significant difference between the traditional use of the Antiquities Act and monument designations of more recent years. That difference is pure politics.

Getting a president to create a national monument was always a major undertaking. Mesa County pioneer John Otto spent years trying to create Colorado National Monument. That meant public education and coalition-building. If a community could unite behind such an effort, pushed by the chambers of commerce with the support of the newspapers, service clubs, towns, counties, and congressional delegations, they might muster enough support to gain a presidential designation. Almost all national monuments involved such cohesive local efforts. It was the tradition, until President Bill Clinton.

Clinton’s 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was a surprise attack, followed by Canyons of the Ancients and 3 others during his last months in office. These designations also preserved unique and beautiful areas, but unlike earlier monuments, they did not have the unified support of local communities. In fact, there was substantial local opposition, and they were created despite the disapproval of Members of Congress from those areas.

No President had used the Antiquities Act as such a political tool before. Clinton’s designations were a gift to the environmental lobby and a slap in face to local congressmen and senators – monument designations specifically intended to stop multiple uses of the public lands, upon which communities depended. Far from waiting for local consensus to emerge as his predecessors had done, Clinton chose sides in some of the West’s oldest political conflicts.

Obama’s latest designation at Brown’s Canyon near Salida was supported by two Senators and the Governor, and there is long-standing bipartisan support for protecting part of the region that was included in wilderness study legislation years ago. However, the district’s current Congressman and many local residents are concerned about the impact of a national monument on long-standing economic activity (there is still an active railroad there).

Clearly, there will always be legitimate debate about whether public lands ought to be used for grazing, logging, mining, oil and gas, hunting, fishing, off-roading, photography, touring, hiking, or any number of other uses. But if Obama and future Presidents want the Antiquities Act to remain popular – and vital to the conservation movement – they should remember the paramount importance of consensus, what modern environmentalists often call “social license.” Its meaning is old and simple: governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

(A version of this column first appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, March 18, 2015)

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