by James Poulos | February 22, 2016 9:31 am
With an eye toward cementing one unquestioned — but not unchallenged — aspect of his legacy, president Obama designated three California desert locations as national monuments, adding to a substantial tally of sites poised to grow further before his term in office ends.
“Obama designated more than 1.8 million acres of California desert for protection with the creation of three national monuments: Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow,” the Washington Post reported. “The new monuments will connect three existing sites — Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve — to create the second-largest desert preserve in the world.”
“President Obama has set aside more of America’s lands and waters for conservation protection than any of his predecessors, and he is preparing to do even more before he leaves office next year. The result may be one of the most expansive environmental and historic-preservation legacies in presidential history.”
Obama’s desert monuments marked a victory of sorts for California’s senior senator, who had to turn to the president to accomplish what she could not in Congress. “The designation was requested by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who for a decade has sought to protect land that wasn’t included in the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. That measure covered nearly 7.6 million acres, elevated Death Valley and Joshua Tree to national park status and created the Mojave National Preserve,” recalled the Los Angeles Times. “Unable to gain momentum on her California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act last year, Feinstein and conservation groups asked Obama to act unilaterally to create the three monuments overlapping biological zones between roughly Palm Springs and the Nevada border.”
Yet the executive action rankled critics — not only among out-of-state Republicans, who have chastised the president’s unilateral measures in the past, but among local California officials. “Utah’s congressional delegation is urging President Barack Obama not to use his powers under the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument on federal lands in San Juan County,” the Moab Sun News reported. “The calls from the state’s four Republican congressmen and two U.S. senators come on the heels of the president’s designation last week of three new national monuments in southern California’s Mojave Desert.”
“The move amplified the Utah delegation’s fears that a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument may be next on the president’s agenda. ‘Use of the Antiquities Act … will be met with fierce local opposition and will further polarize federal land-use discussions for years, if not decades,’ the delegation says in a letter to Obama.”
Meanwhile, in California, the president’s action triggered the kind of local dismay warned of by the Utah delegation. “San Bernardino County politicians said it could jeopardize a lucrative mining operation in the Castle Mountains and off-highway vehicle recreation areas,” according to the Desert Sun. “In separate written statements, San Bernardino County Supervisors Curt Hagman and Robert Lovingood and Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, accused the president of bypassing the legislative process via the Antiquities Act.”
Lovingood, noted the Sun, “said the Castle Mountains gold mine, which sits in the center of the newly designated national monument abutting the California/Nevada border, has the potential to generate more than $225 million in tax revenue and create roughly 300 jobs if scaled up to full production. But under the president’s executive action, it appears there is no mechanism for the National Park Service to issue the necessary permits[.]”
But at least some area locals had thrown their weight behind the new monuments. “Several Latino coalitions participated in the effort to protect the desert areas, including the Council of Mexican Federations, the Latino Conservation Alliance and the faith-based organization Por La Creación,” according to KPCC. Maite Arce, president and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation, told the station “wide local participation was made possible by the large Latino population in the region.”
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