America Needs More Monuments

President Obama is creating national monuments at an unprecedented rate. Will that be enough to save America's last best places?
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President Obama is creating national monuments at an unprecedented rate. Will that be enough to save America's last best places?
sierra california

A view as pretty as this (Long Lake, in the Sierras) deserves to be on a postcard. Photo by Jar []

President Obama, you may have the most impressive conservation legacy of any POTUS since Jimmy Carter. Just this past August, you protected 87,500 acres in Maine with the stroke of a pen, adding to the more than 2 million acres that you’ve set aside in creating and expanding 25 national monuments—more than any other president.

The only problem? It’s not enough.

Sure, more national monuments are an important start. Teddy Roosevelt—the first President to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate public land—saw them as the best way to circumvent hurry-up developers and slow-to-act Congresses when entire landscapes were threatened. In 1908, he made a bold, groundbreaking statement by protecting the Grand Canyon as a national monument, declaring the whole thing an “object of historic and scientific interest.” In the 100 years since T.R. swung his big conservation stick, 16 other Presidents have designated 123 national monuments. No other public lands designation—not parks, not wilderness, not wildlife reserves—can be created in an instant simply because the President says so.

But here’s the rub: National monuments are last century’s solution. Since Roosevelt gave us the Grand Canyon, we’ve learned much more about the way wildlife and ecosystems work. Animals and plants, air and water, climate change—these things don’t conform to park or monument boundaries. Even our most sacred places will become impractical, little islands of wilderness. Take the Grand Canyon: Between uranium mining, helicopter tourism, and a massive tram project that will ferry fly-by tourists to its once-wild depths, the national park needs even more protection (hint, hint, Mr. President).

If you don’t act now, Mr. Obama, you leave a lot of ifs. What if the next president isn’t conservation-minded? Federal lands across the West could be turned over to states that don’t have the budget to manage them for recreation. Even if the next president is conservation-minded, will he or she be willing to navigate the politics? Mountain bikers want equal access to hiking trails. Mining and timber harvesting must take place somewhere. And, of course, managing federal lands costs money.

So thank you, Mr. Obama, for protecting so much land. But don’t stop there. Before you leave office, how about designating another couple dozen monuments? But be strategic about it. If you designate Bears Ears, a 1.9-million-acre tract in Utah, it will not only help protect more than 100,000 archaeological sites, but also help connect the greater Canyonlands area near Moab to the 1,880,461-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and even Grand Canyon National Park itself. Think about it: a nation-size expanse of protected land that retains its vital, wild core. That feels good, doesn’t it?

Now check out the stretch of federal land between Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Can’t you picture a Sierra National Monument? It’s in California, they’ll love it! Great, you’re getting somewhere now. Time to go really big, and designate a monument in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Take a junket on Air Force One and go see the caribou migration. Take your daughters. Can you look them in the eyes and say there’s nothing you can do?

I have seen you speak in person. I know you hold a true conviction about saving the natural world. But it’s time to roll your sleeves up. It’s time for the dirty work. How about building a conservation legacy that Teddy Roosevelt would be proud of?