Obama's Legacy of Protection

During last year's State of the Union address, President Obama had very little to say about public lands protection, but what he did say got right to the point: "I'll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations." During this year's speech, he said nothing about it at all. He didn't need to. His actions are speaking for themselves. His latest announcement -- three new national monuments -- almost doubles the amount of public land that he has protected this way.

One of the new monuments, Waco Mammoth, is a relatively small site that has the largest known concentration of fossil mammoths in the U.S. About half of Obama's designations so far have been primarily of historic or cultural interest and don't include large tracts of land. The other two new monuments, though, total more than one million new acres of protected lands.

The new Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument in Northern California is exciting because, like last year's newly designated San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, it is less than 100 miles from major metropolitan areas where millions of people live. It's a biologically diverse and largely unspoiled outdoor wonderland that is loved and used by everyone from whitewater rafters to sportsmen to long-distance cyclists. Placing more than 330,000 acres of federal lands in this area under a single management plan should ensure that this treasure remains intact.

Southeastern Nevada's new Basin and Range National Monument is the single largest designation that President Obama has made to date: more than 700,000 acres. I would put this one in the category of "finishing the job" -- similar to even larger proposed monuments near the Grand Canyon and Utah's Canyonlands National Park that would fill in gaps between other protected lands. Previous protection efforts in the Basin and Range landscape have centered on the mountains, while the "basin" part of the landscape was overlooked. Although mountains are charismatic, they are only part of the landscape. The new national monument completes the picture by protecting the entire ecosystem.

President Obama deserves a big thank you for these designations, and I'll show you where to do that in a moment. But first I want to point out that most of the work that went into making these designations possible didn't happen in Washington, D.C. As is often the case, each of these new monuments sprang from a local campaign for protection. National monument designations aren't the result of a presidential whim. Local people work long and hard (sometimes for more than a decade) to build community support and make the case for protection before a president is willing to act. Although the president signs the declarations, you'll find the real heroes behind the scenes. (Lately, the public lands process has also had some decidedly unheroic nonparticipants. You'll find them studiously ignoring public lands legislation on Capitol Hill.)

So by all means, thank President Obama for these latest additions to his impressive public lands protection legacy -- but let's not forget the hard work of the ordinary citizens who have made that legacy possible.