Barack Obama turns something unusual into a "national monument"

Before leaving office next January, Barack Obama has one last gift to the American people: a brand new national monument. But rather than a location which commemorates a Revolutionary War battlefield or the site of some famous advancement in civil rights or industrial progress, this one is comprised of thousands of acres of… trees. This section of forest is located in Maine, and not everyone there is happy about it’s new, lofty status. (Washington Post)

President Obama designated a large swath of Maine’s North Woods as a new national monument Wednesday, creating what is likely to be the last large new national park ever established on the East Coast.

In a statement, the White House said the move aimed to honor the National Park Service’s centennial, which will take place Thursday. The move occurred almost exactly 100 years after President Woodrow Wilson established Sieur de Monts National Monument, which eventually became Maine’s sole existing national park, Acadia…

Still, some Republicans criticized Obama’s decision to protect the area without waiting for congressional approval, which is required to designate a national park. Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage (R) said it “demonstrates that rich, out-of-state liberals can force their unpopular agenda on the Maine people against their will.”

There are a couple of different parts to this decision which are raising questions. First of all, there’s a reason that the President has to call this unremarkable section of forest a national monument rather than a national park. The White House has the ability to designate national monuments by way of executive fiat, but Congress needs to approve a national park. That’s previously been a fairly sensible strategy, but thanks to this president the system may need a fresh look. Traditionally, a monument wouldn’t take up too much space and could almost always be agreed upon by the public as being a site of national, historic significance, even if somewhat controversial. That means a building or large piece of artwork or natural formation for the most part. At most it might be a battlefield. Either way, the federal government isn’t tying up too much land with such a move. National parks on the other hand can be vast expanses of land which are suddenly shut off from private ownership or commercial development in perpetuity.

Perhaps my own personal experiences color my opinion on this, but the widespread creation of state or federally protected forestland cause as many problems as most other sweeping government action. Several years ago I wrote about a different stretch of forest and lakes in New York. It’s a place so remote that it doesn’t even have a name. It’s simply called Township 40 after the original surveying maps developed by the region’s earliest settlers. But as remote as it may be, there have been people living there since the early 1800s and paying taxes on their land, houses, hunting cabins and boat houses for generations. When they found themselves living in a protected state park the problems began, and environmentalists who wanted to keep the land “forever wild” employed Democrats in the state government to harass them endlessly.

The property under discussion in Maine is a bit different since the entire stretch was privately owned and is being donated to the government to create the national forest. That takes some of the sting out of the situation in terms of private dwellings and usage, but the point is that the land is now off the table permanently. In other circumstances, the owner’s family may have eventually decided to sell off some or all of it for private ownership, recreation or development. But as a “national monument” it will be lost to those types of access permanently.