Wake me when it’s January 20th.
If you thought the parade of last minute executive actions by Barack Obama was going to slow down in the final three weeks, think again. In a (hopefully) final slap in the face to states’ rights advocates, the President expanded on his already record setting history of locking up vast tracks of land under federal control this week. A staggering mass of more than 1.5 million acres in Utah and Nevada was converted to “national monument” status, ostensibly intended to protect cultural treasures. The announcement showed up on the White House web site.
Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes. Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes. Importantly, today I have also established a Bears Ears Commission to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional knowledge help inform the management of the Bears Ears National Monument and help us to best care for its remarkable national treasures.
In a clearly coordinated effort, the White House enlisted Russell Begaye of the Navajo nation to publish an op-ed singing the praises of the President for his “bold” efforts to preserve tribal lands for future generations. And to be clear, there’s no doubt that there are some individual sites scattered around this vast piece of territory where you can find ancient indigenous dwellings and other cultural artifacts. In a sane world where the White House actually understood and respected the idea of a “national monument” (as opposed to a national park, which the President can’t simply create on his own) we might have seen some of the more important, individual sites set aside for preservation and tourism. But this move simply blocks off a vast area in both states from any future energy exploration, recreational use or private development.
These eleventh hour moves are becoming tedious and repetitive at this point. The President is distorting the intended purpose of traditional tools available to the White House for limited preservation action. It’s very similar to his twisted interpretation of sea shelf leasing rules which supposedly allowed him to permanently ban offshore oil exploration in vast tracks of the continental shelf. This should bring us to the unfortunate but apparently necessary point of examining some of these executive branch powers to see precisely how “permanent” they truly are. Some members of Congress are already mulling the question over. (Fox News)
Trump’s upcoming presidency has tempered the excitement for tribal leaders and conservationists, with some worrying he could try to reverse or reduce some of Obama’s expansive land protections.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, who opposes the Bears Ears Monument, has suggested presidents have the power to undo monuments, though it has not been done before.
A coalition of tribes pushed for the creation of Utah’s eighth national monument, though they asked Obama to make it about 500,000 acres larger than the monument he named Wednesday.
There was a time when we didn’t need to worry about “undoing” these sorts of actions. That’s because previous presidents acted on the honor system, exercising restraint and not attempting to bend the rules in order to advance their own agenda. Sadly, those days are gone. The idea that a president elected for four or eight years can permanently effect such sweeping changes regardless of the wishes of either future office holders or the voters is dubious at best.
Sadly, we needed that “honor system” all of this time to avoid turning the routine practice of designating monuments or managing natural resources into a political football. I doubt anyone wanted a situation where alternating presidents from different parties were creating and then invalidating a series of statues. But when you have a president abusing the system to this degree there may simply be no way around it.