Late in his administration, Bill Clinton attempted to build a conservation legacy worthy of Teddy Roosevelt by designating more than a dozen national monuments across the West.
George W. Bush tried to undo that legacy.
And President Barack Obama, to his dis-credit, has allowed the Bush-adopted, monument-undercutting status quo to remain, despite being the "hope-y, change-y" candidate in 2008.
But a little more background.
Teddy signed the Antiquities Act in 1906, which authorizes presidents to set aside federal land for the protection of “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures,” as well as “other objects of historic or scientific interest.” Over the years, presidents from both parties have invoked the Antiquities Act more than a hundred times to protect some of the nation’s most iconic landscapes — including the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, Death Valley and the lands in southwest Utah that would become Zion National Park.
Clinton’s binge of Monument designation included two fantastic landscapes. One million acres of the rugged, red-rock landscape north of the Grand Canyon became the "Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument" on Jan. 11, 2001. Six days later, President Clinton created the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, 375,000 acres of wild Montana that looks relatively unchanged since the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through more than two centuries ago.
Bush on the whole didn’t like national monuments, certainly not those protecting western landscapes. (Of the few he designated, most are remote islands or miles under water.)
Bush also had the opportunity to undo some of the protections in Clinton’s monuments, because Bush got to write the plans for how the Grand Canyon-Parashant and Missouri River monuments would be managed. And he made sure the Interior Department did a purposefully crummy job writing those plans.
For example, Clinton’s designation of the Missouri River Breaks NM required protecting that awesome landscape in part by banning vehicle travel "off road." To essentially gut this measure, Monument managers defined a "road" to include any vegetated depression on the ground that looked like a tire track. In short, if someone had driven over the ground in a spot in the last 20 years, it was a "road" where vehicle travel might continue. So much for rigorously protecting THAT monument.
At the Grand Canyon-Parashant, managers did something similar, declining to consider seriously protected large blocks of wildlands as a way to protect the monument’s remote character, and OKing a spider-web of "roads" that included scores of little-used off-road vehicle trails, despite the fact that such "roads" threaten to cause damage to archeological sites and wildlife habitat in the monument.
President Obama, the "change" president, could have changed these wrong-headed Bush plans. He hasn’t.
In the face of lawsuits from Earthjustice trying to overturn the Bush plans, Obama’s lawyers are defending the Bush administration’s Orwellian premise that a rut on the ground is a "road" in the Breaks, and the illegal, anti-wilderness bias of the Grand Canyon-Parashant plan.
Know hope? Sadly, little hope – or help – so far from this administration on these monuments.
For now, Earthjustice and the groups we represent (including The Wilderness Society) have to put their hope in the courts, not the President, to ensure these landscapes get the protection national monuments truly deserve.
Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument
Photo credit: Scott Jones
Upper Missouri River Breaks National-Monument
Photo credit: BLM