April 15th, 2014 by

By Alexandra Bower

Seeing legislation stifled in a Congress that is so gridlocked by partisanship is not cause for surprise. What about 10 conservations bills introduced and languished 52 times in the last 30 years? Surprised yet?

Since 1984, 10 high-profile land conservation bills have been introduced and stifled on 52 separate occasions in the U.S. House of Representatives and/or the U.S. Senate, despite mass support and meeting widely-held criteria for conservation. This criteria for designating conservation land has been guided by a set of principles: the area has unique cultural and recreational assets; there is expansive local backing for safeguarding the land; and there are officials advocating for conservation measures.

Since 1906, more than 1,000 bills meeting these standards have become law. However, in recent years, it’s almost impossible to get land conservation issues through Congress because of overwhelming “Congressional dysfunction and partisanship.”

Because of authority granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906, the President can establish national monuments without Congressional declaration. These monuments range from burial grounds and the Statue of Liberty to parts of the Grand Canyon and giant sequoia groves, and are pivotal symbols of the United States’ history and heritage.

President Obama has wielded the powers of the Antiquities Act, and shown great support for protecting public lands by establishing 1,660 acres as the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands on California’s Mendocino Coast, 243,000 acres as the Rio Grande del Norte monument in New Mexico, and, most recently, 32,500 acres as the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. He is also expected to designate a monument in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico and lands near the Canyonlands National Park in Idaho.

Devil's Tower is one of many National Monuments surrounded by forest ecosystems.

Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is one of many national monuments surrounded by forest ecosystems. Under the Antiquities Act, President Obama aims to protect these ecosystems.
Wikimedia/Walter Siegmund

National monuments and parks are known to provide a safe home for plants and wildlife, promote biodiversity, safeguard clean air and water, and stimulate recreational activities. Our forests thrive because of our preservation of national parks and monuments across the country, so it is vital that the president has the ability to designate public lands for this use, especially if Congress cannot or will not do so.

However, this authority is being threatened by the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of Monuments and Parks Act, deemed the “No New Parks” bill by the media. The bill would revise the Antiquities Act, forcing the President to delay designation by forcing a National Environmental Policy Act review, a process never before used for such actions. Additionally, the “No New Parks” bill would set up various other limits, including the inability of any more than one national monument designation per state during any presidential four-year term. This would deny President Obama’s ability to set up the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks monument in New Mexico because of the recently established Rio Grande del Norte monument in 2013.

Congressional acts like this, and the fact that the President has not been sent a single conservation bill to protect new acres of public land since 2009, speak volumes about Congressional stalemate when faced with conservation bills. Energy development is a major concern in recent years and is a chief motivation behind Congressional inaction and backlash against land conservation. While 2.9 million acres of public lands have been protected, 7.4 million acres of public lands have been leased for oil and gas drilling.

The imbalance is clear, and maybe one day we will see Congressional action on land conservation. Until then, the responsibility to protect our cultural and ecological heritage must rest on the shoulders of President Obama and administrations to come.