For American presidents, protecting the country’s last wild places has long been a matter of legacy. Theodore Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a national monument after failing to make it a national park. Jimmy Carter forced Congress to designate more than 66 million acres in Alaska as wilderness. George W. Bush preserved 140,000 square miles of ocean in Hawaii as a national monument.
President Obama’s record remains largely unwritten. He has declared two historic sites, totaling less than 15,000 acres, as national monuments. The one wilderness bill he signed — establishing 2.1 million acres of wilderness in nine states, including Virginia, Michigan and Oregon — came from a bipartisan deal struck by the Bush administration.
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.”
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.
The administration cites among its accomplishments preserving some ecologically valuable areas through partnerships with private landowners, ranchers and business leaders; protecting national forest waterways from erosion and imposing limits on drilling and mining on some public lands.
But for the most part, the administration has “a really utilitarian mind-set” on public lands that is more focused on what they can produce in terms of wind, solar and fossil fuels than a long-term conservation vision, said Jim Lyons, senior director for renewable energy at Defenders of Wildlife.
“It’s not that I don’t think the president believes in conservation,” said Lyons, who was undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and the environment under President Bill Clinton. “It’s just, too often, his administration doesn’t seem to make it a priority.”
Some of Obama’s traditional supporters said he has not done enough to defend pristine areas. They point to decisions allowing up to 130 miles of off-road vehicle routes in Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve, traversing panther habitat and areas where water flows to the Everglades; authorizing nearly 1,300 natural gas wells in Utah’s Desolation Canyon and other areas; and expediting a power line through the Delaware Water Gap and parts of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Officials explored creating more monuments but quickly backed off after a list of potential sites became public. Instead, Salazar proposed an option for a lower level of protection, putting some areas into a category he called “wild lands” where mining and drilling in areas with wilderness potential would be barred unless otherwise designated.
He then dropped that idea, and in November the Interior Department instead identified 18 backcountry areas — where local residents generally support greater federal protection — that Congress might consider classifying as wilderness. Congress has taken no action on the proposal, and there has been little obvious pressure from the administration to do so.
Salazar said the administration’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative had identified several key landscapes — including the Flint Hills in Kansas and Florida’s Everglades — and has worked with the private sector to protect them.
“On all of those landscapes, we have made herculean progress,” he said.
Salazar has also approved plans to create five new national wildlife refuges and expand six others — allowing hunting, fishing and other recreation activities — for a total of 3.3 million acres. Separately, Forest Service officials have struck a deal with Colorado to keep 4.2 million acres of forest land there roadless, with a quarter of the land receiving higher protection than under rules enacted under Clinton.
Some groups say the administration is getting around Congress by using a “wilderness characteristics” label for tracts of public land, meaning they might have the potential to be designated wilderness later. Republicans and many of their allies say such land should not be treated differently from other public land until it is declared wilderness; the administration and environmentalists say it deserves some interim protection.
“Instead of ‘wild lands,’ they’re saying ‘wilderness characteristics,’ ” said Wayne Allard, the American Motorcyclist Association’s vice president of government relations, who served as a Republican senator from Colorado from 1997 to 2009. “There’s not really any distinction in my mind or in the minds of many who use public lands.”
Dustin Van Liew, who directs the Public Lands Council for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, calls this approach “de facto wilderness” that limits ranchers’ activities, though these moves lack the same permanent and legal force of wilderness designations.
Both sides, including Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Interior Department, say the political climate makes it hard to enact new lands protections. Simpson said that Congress will probably move some sort of public lands bill after the November election or early next year but that “whether or not that package will include additional wilderness bills is difficult to predict at this time.”
Kristen Brengel, who directs legislative and government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the administration has not spoken out forcefully enough to resist proposals that could erode existing protections, such as a House-passed bill that would expand hunting and fishing in national parks and other public lands. A legal analysis commissioned by the group shows the measure could allow wildlife collection, battlefield reenactments and paintball games in parks, along with off-road vehicle use in areas awaiting a possible wilderness designation.
The Interior Department submitted written testimony opposing the bill, but Brengel said that “these agencies need to speak up and say, ‘You’re gutting the Wilderness Act. You’re gutting the National Park Service Organic Act. Without saying that, it’s empty.”
This month, a group of more than 1,100 Westerners who were supporters and campaign volunteers for Obama in 2008 launched a drive called “It’s Monumental,” urging him to create five national monuments in places where these proposals already have broad local support out West.
John D. Podesta, who served as White House chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, said Clinton always “loved the outdoors” but came to embrace the idea more forcefully as he traveled the country and established new protections for public land. “You get goose bumps in these places, and you know you’re preserving them — literally — for generations. And Clinton was just very into it,” Podesta said. “This is the thing that the president loved.” He added that there’s been “little bandwidth in the White House to think about this” during Obama’s term.
“I think if they can create a process that engages the president in both thinking about what the stakes are for the country and posterity, and then getting out there and touching and feeling it,” he said, “I think he could get very into it.”