If Congress Can't, the President Must

Message from Mike Matz

Your Wilderness - December 2012

President Teddy Roosevelt signed the bill into law and then used it 18 times in 2½ years. Under the same authority, President Jimmy Carter saved 56 million acres of Alaska, our last frontier. President George W. Bush employed it to establish 140,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii as a marine national monument.

The 1906 Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities (Antiquities Act) grants our presidents the ability “to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.”

It is a marvelously foresighted tool bestowed by Congress to protect our heritage for future generations. President Barack Obama has availed himself of this discretion four times, proclaiming Fort Ord in California and Fort Monroe in Virginia, Chimney Rock Archeological Site in Colorado's San Juan National Forest, and most recently Cesar Chavez's home in California as national monuments.

Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to save Devil's Tower in Wyoming, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and the Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon in Arizona, along with 15 other places. Sixteen presidents since, eight from each party, have signed executive orders proclaiming national monuments for deserving and uniquely American natural features. It's the reason today we have Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

You read here last month about the unfinished business Congress has to address in the remaining weeks of 2012. Because of the commitment of key members—such as Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), retiring chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the incoming chairman; and the committee's ranking minority member, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)—we remain hopeful the 112th Congress will approve an omnibus public lands package that includes several of the wilderness bills many of you have been working so diligently to get across the finish line. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has put a public lands package on his to-do list for action in the lame-duck session that began the week after the elections.

Time is short, however. If Congress is unable to pass conservation measures this year, President Obama should act under the power given to him by the Antiquities Act.

The Rio Grande Gorge, with Ute Mountain as its sentinel, ought to be considered for protection as a national monument, as should the Organ Mountains, also in New Mexico. Gold Butte in Nevada is another that has strong support locally. The same is true of Browns Canyon in Colorado. These are purportedly already on the list for the president's consideration, as are two coastal island chains in California and Washington; but there are others equally deserving that should be in the mix.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) has long championed an economic and recreation bill to designate 330,000 acres of wilderness in the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains of central Idaho. If Congress doesn't act, the president should. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has put forward legislation to establish a conservation management area and safeguard 275,000 acres of rustic public land, including nearly 70,000 acres of wilderness in his state. If it stalls, the president should proclaim portions of the Rocky Mountain Front a national monument.

Beauty Mountain in Southern California deserves this protection, if Congress fails to enact Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-Calif.) wilderness bill for it and Agua Tibia. Cathedral Rock in Oregon is another shining candidate, should Congress be unable to complete action on Sen. Wyden's wilderness legislation.

Historical sites such as Forts Ord and Monroe, Cesar Chavez's home and even Harriet Tubman's birthplace in Maryland are wonderful tributes to worthy Americans and American sacrifices, and President Obama is to be congratulated for these. However, the president has yet to join the pantheon of his predecessors who have used the Antiquities Act to save America's keepsakes, such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante, Missouri Breaks and Grand Canyon-Parashant national monuments of Utah, Montana and Arizona—all established by President Bill Clinton, whose ambitious conservation legacy using the Antiquities Act surpassed even that of Teddy Roosevelt.

If members of Congress can't find the floor time to pass the conservation agenda their constituents hope they can before the year is out, President Obama must step up, and step up early, in his second term.