At a Rose Garden signing today, President Obama celebrated five new national monuments, forever preserving a small handful of wilderness areas and monuments.
For conservationists, it’s a step forward, after what they see as a first term spent largely continuing the policies of Bush-Cheney by favoring oil and gas development over land preservation on public lands and waters.
Congress similarly neglected the wilderness during those same four years, by failing to set aside any areas for protection, the first time a Congress had allowed that in 70 years.
The new protections range from 240,000 acres in New Mexico to less than a thousand acres in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state and small sites honoring underground railroad heroine Harriet Tubman and Charles Young Buffalo, the first African-American to graduate from West Point and the first to be named a colonel.
The President’s decision comes on the heels of very pointed criticism from many Western conservationists, led by one-time Clinton Secretary of Interior and Arizonan Bruce Babbitt. He recently waved statistics at the Obama Administration that cited former Presidents Bush and Clinton as preserving one acre for every acre leased to oil and gas companies while Bush-Cheney gave more like 7.5 acres to oil and gas for every acre preserved. To date, according to Babbitt, President Obama had allowed “more than 6 million acres to be leased compared with 2.6 million acres permanently protected,” roughly three to one.
The hope of conservationists is that today’s announcement is the first of many to come during a second Obama administration. They are encouraged by what appears to be the successful nomination of former REI CEO Sally Jewell to head the Interior Department.
A noted recreationist and environmentalist—with experience also as a petroleum engineer and banker—Jewell’s nomination was approved last week by a sizable, bipartisan vote of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Her confirmation is expected soon after the Senate reconvenes after the Easter and Passover break next week.
The lands to be preserved are:
1) A 1,100-acre stretch of Brandywine Valley along the Delaware-Pennsylvania border. This is the initial step towards making the land Delaware’s first National Park. The park will document the state’s history of the Lenni-Lenape tribe as well as the Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English settlements that followed, as well as its role as the first state to ratify the Constitution. Homeboy Vice President Joe Biden, who’d made the project a long-term priority, said he “couldn’t have been more proud” of the park’s inclusion.
2) The biggest addition to the national park system is the Rio Grand del Norte National Monument—a 240,000-acre spot of land in northern New Mexico. The area contains thousands of archeological sites, some dating back 11,000 years, and is home to bears, cougars, elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep and is an important stopover for migratory birds.
3) A 955-acre national monument in Washington’s San Juan Islands is a nice tip of the hat to Seattle-based Jewell. (Her predecessor Ken Salazar is largely responsible for helping to push for the listing.) The monument will mean permanent protection for many of the remote islands from Lopez to Patos, including still-working lighthouses and one-room schoolhouses.
4) The Arlington, Virginia-based Conservation Fund donated a 480-acre property on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to the National Park Service to help tell the story of Harriett Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Tubman escaped slavery in 1849 when she was 27 and returned to Maryland’s Dorchester and Caroline counties 13 times to help slaves escape to the north. She served in the Union Army during the Civil War, led the Underground Railroad and went on to advocate for civil rights and women’s rights.
5) In Xenia, Ohio, the Charles Young Monument celebrates the West Point graduate—son of slaves who went on to become the highest ranking black officer in the U.S. Army until his death in 1922—who also happened to be the first black national park superintendent.