He has displayed only a modest personal interest in wilderness protection. And although he has spoken movingly of a family visit to Yellowstone at age 11, he spends more of his free time golfing or on the beach than hiking or horseback riding through national parks.
Administration officials insist that the president cares about the wilderness but that he faces political and fiscal constraints.
“The reality is that this president has had challenges on his plate that no modern president has had to deal with, ending two wars, saving the economy. This has been a very time-consuming four years,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in an interview. He added that Obama has “a great connection” with the outdoors. “In terms of conservation, the president and the first lady, they’re with us.”
The struggle over managing the nation’s 650 million acres of federal land involves ranchers, energy firms, environmentalists, riders of off-road vehicles, anglers and a host of other players. Over the years, differing layers of protection were developed to satisfy this array of constituencies.
Wilderness, which is designated by Congress, is the highest level of protection for federal land and prohibits all mechanized activity, including bicycle riding. National monuments can be declared by presidents unilaterally and give varying but significant protection. National parks allow a range of activities but aim to keep “the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife . . . unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Obama would have made more national monument designations but faced resistance on the grounds that the designations could hamper activities such as energy exploration and off-road vehicle use, said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who chairs the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands.
“I don’t look at [Obama] as cautious,” Bishop said. “I look at him as being busted.”
Reasons for reluctance
Most presidents have made their most ambitious monument designations in their second terms.
Mike Matz, who directs the Campaign for America’s Wilderness at the Pew Environment Group, said he understands why the administration would be reluctant to create major monuments right now.
“I don’t think they want to raise a ruckus in the West and have opposition from the other side of the aisle criticize them on it,” he said.