President Barack Obama signed into existence three new national monuments on Friday, using his executive powers to preserve more than 1 million acres of land across Nevada, California, and Texas.
The three new monuments — Berryessa Snow Mountain in northern California, Waco Mammoth in Texas, and the Basin and Range in Nevada — bring Obama's total preserved acres of land and water to 260 million, which the White House said in a statement was more than any other president.
Each new monument preserves land that was already public and being used for recreation, education, and grazing, and will have management plans developed and followed by federal agencies for how best to care for them.
Obama's use of the Antiquities Act, which he has employed 19 times, has drawn sharp lines between environmentalists who say the already-public lands need to be protected from development, and outspoken Republicans who say Obama is overreaching with his federal powers.
"This is incredibly important," Jeremy Garncarz, senior director of designations at the Wilderness Society, told VICE News.
"As time goes on and we see increased development pressures on our public land, and increases in irresponsible uses, including vandalism to these important cultural resources and the possible impact of climate change, his taking action and ensuring these places will be protected in a way that ensures that these resources remain in perpetuity is absolutely critical," Carncarz said.
Representative Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, said Friday in response to the law that Obama was "using and abusing the Antiquities Act as a political weapon"
Representative Bob Heck of Nevada condemned the action and criticized the president for protecting his state's Basin and Range Monument at the request of Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat who tried in vain to protect the area through legislation in the past.
"President Obama often says 'We are stronger as a nation when we work together.' Apparently that rule does not apply to public lands issues when it involves his political allies," Heck said in a statement.
Earlier this year, Heck proposed legislation limiting the president's power to designate national monuments without congressional approval. He noted in his statement that the law currently allows a president to protect the "smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected," and said it was "beyond belief that an area larger than the state of Rhode Island" was protected through Obama's executive action.
Carncarz said Obama made it clear from the beginning of his presidency that he felt strongly about "this being important and that he considers it a leadership issues the president must address," and that Obama was "stacking up to be one of the great conservationists."
The Antiquities Act gives the president power to protect cultural and natural resources, and has been used to different extents by presidents of both parties, including the last three — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — and Republican stalwart Theodore Roosevelt, who oversaw the creation of five national parks and eight national monuments, as well as more than 100 national forests.
Mike Matz, director of Pew's US public lands program, said Obama was now at about the same level of conservation as Bill Clinton, and not nearly as much as Roosevelt, but that all three are dwarfed by Jimmy Carter's preservation of 56 million acres in Alaska during his presidency.
"This is the first time in history that we actually have a complete spectrum, a continuum of ecological spectrums going from the tops of mountains to depths of valleys," Matz said. "So this is a big step forward in having a representative sample like that in the national conservation landscape."
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