Obama on Feb. 12 named three monuments in Southern California – in a stretch of San Bernardino and Riverside counties between Los Angeles and Las Vegas: Sand to Snow National Monument, Mojave Trails National Monument and Castle Mountains National Monument. The three monuments will cover a territory of 1.8 million acres.
The trio marks the 22nd occasion in which Obama has used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate public land as national monuments with tighter levels of protection and greater restrictions for multiple use. The White House said the three new monuments nearly double the total public land Obama has classified as new monuments, for a total of 265 million acres of monument territory.
The Mojave Trails National Monument, ranging between Barstow and Needles, California, just by itself encompasses 1.6 million acres. Sand to Snow covers almost 154,000 acres, and Castle Mountains includes 21,000 acres of federal land.
Obama moved on the designations after last year’s effort by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to create two monuments, expand two national parks and a national preserve, while establishing six new wilderness areas, failed in Congress.
“The California desert is a cherished and irreplaceable resource for the people of Southern California,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a statement praising the designations. “It is an oasis of nature’s quiet beauty just outside two of our nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Its historic and cultural resources tell the stories of armies, travelers, ranchers and miners, and of the original caretakers of this land. Today’s designation by the president furthers the longstanding work of public land managers and local communities to ensure these areas will remain preserved and accessible to the public for future generations.”
While the land designated was already federal public land, ranching groups have criticized the protections because they significantly alter traditional public uses, such as grazing, which are limited or outright restricted. And the sheer size of the designations, they said, exceeds the original intent of the Antiquities Act and its authorization power.
“Here we are again discussing the president’s abuse of a law intended to protect objects or artifacts, not large landscapes,” said Tracy Brunner, National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) president and Kansas cattleman. “When designations like these take place, multiple-use and valid existing rights like grazing always lose. If this administration believes this land is in need of protection, they should do so through the proper democratic channels, not a stroke of the pen that bypasses the American people.”
But the power granted under the Antiquities Act has been repeatedly upheld upon challenge in the courts. Attempts to amend the president’s authority granted by the law have also failed, given the lobbying power of environmental interests. Sixteen presidents have utilized the law since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
Colin Woodall, vice president of governmental affairs for NCBA, has indicated that more monuments are expected in the last stages of the Obama administration’s final term.
“When you’re in the last year of a presidential administration, regardless of whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, you’re looking at two things: your list of unfinished business, and you’re looking at your legacy,” Woodall said.
“A lot of the things left on his list include designations and also additional EPA rules and regulations.”
Justin Oldfield, vice president of government affairs for the California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), said the three new designations cover areas mostly described as high desert. “There may be a few grazing allotments, but I don’t know that much ranching is in there.”
The CCA opposed the creation of the Berryessa Snow Mountain monument, announced by Obama last July. “We had some ranchers consulted on that discussion. Whether that was done to get our input or just to check a box, I can’t say. But we still weighed in accordingly.”
Oldfield said in spite of some resolutions and language given to protect grazing in monuments, “over time that never really happens when it hits the ground. Time has yet to tell, but if we look at past cases, that’s what generally plays out.”
But the sheer size of the new Mojave region monuments is enough to concern Oldfield.
“Any time such a large section of land is taken out of production or could be in production, that’s the question. Again, these are high desert lands, but what are you taking off the board for production in the future?”
“This president has misused and abused his executive power more than any of his predecessors in an attempt to distract from his true environmental legacy, which will be one of mismanagement and undue economic hardship in rural communities,” said Brenda Richards, president of the Public Lands Council in a statement.
“It’s outrageous that the administration would openly boast of sidestepping the American public under the guise of protecting these lands when in fact they are eroding the multiple-use doctrine of the federal land management agencies.”