The White House announced today that President Obama will use his executive authority to establish a national monument covering 700,000 acres of Nevada rangeland that will become his largest land-based monument designation and create two others in Texas and California.
The Basin and Range National Monument in east-central Nevada will preserve, among other things, a remote section of the Great Basin that sits in an picturesque valley framed by mountain ranges. The site, less than two hours’ drive north of Las Vegas, includes the Garden and Coal valleys and features Native American trails, rock shelters and lithic scatters.
The Bureau of Land Management will manage the monument as part of its National Conservation Lands program, according to a White House "fact sheet" released to reporters late yesterday.
In addition to the Basin and Range National Monument, the president is designating two other new monuments in Texas and California, the White House said.
The Waco Mammoth National Monument, covering 107 acres in northeast Texas, will protect the largest concentration of Columbian mammoth fossil remains in North America. The Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in Northern California will stretch 330,000 acres in a region considered a recreation hot spot for residents in nearby San Francisco and Sacramento.
BLM, which has called the Berryessa Snow Mountain region an "outdoor wonderland," will manage it along with the Forest Service; the National Park Service will manage the Waco Mammoth monument in coordination with the city of Waco, Texas, and Baylor University, according to the White House.
In total, the three monuments cover more than 1 million acres of public lands, advancing the Obama administration’s "commitment to protect our country’s significant outdoor spaces for the benefit of future generations," the White House said.
But the designations are likely to spur controversy, in large part because of Obama’s use of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows the president to bypass Congress and establish national monuments.
Obama has now used his authority under the Antiquities Act 19 times.
He did so most recently in February when he signed proclamations establishing the 21,500-acre Browns Canyon National Monument in south-central Colorado, the 203-acre Pullman National Monument in Chicago, and the 160-acre Honouliuli National Monument, which protects the site of a World War II Japanese-American internment camp on the island of Oahu in Hawaii that held as many as 400 civilian internees.
Obama’s designations have focused on culturally significant sites such as César E. Chávez National Monument in California, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio.
But the president’s use of the Antiquities Act has drawn the ire of GOP leaders, particularly in the West, who argue that the designations are an example of executive overreach, and have come without seeking input from the public or federal agencies.
Nevada Rep. Cresent Hardy (R) this week successfully added an amendment to the proposed U.S. EPA-Interior Department fiscal 2016 budget bill that would block funds from going to presidential declarations of national monuments in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Utah (E&E Daily, July 9).
Hardy told E&E Daily this week that one of his goals was to stop Obama from establishing the Basin and Range National Monument, which Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has urged the president to do if Congress failed to act.
Reid has introduced legislation to withdraw more than 800,000 acres of the Basin and Range area from future mineral development.
"My concern is that there’s no local input, [Obama is] going to come do this because Harry Reid has asked him to," Hardy said. "It’s not saving it for the future; it’s locking us out."
In addition, the sheer size of the Basin and Range National Monument is likely to make it the prime target of GOP scorn.
Hardy last spring obtained and circulated a six-page draft proclamation for the new monument, complaining at the time that establishing the monument at the site could impede military exercises in the Nevada desert (E&E Daily, May 8).
That’s because the monument would lie under the airspace of the Nevada Test and Training Range and include one of the most heavily used military operating areas in the country, he said. The Air Force and its partners flew nearly 20,000 aircraft sorties in the area last year, exercises that would be "drastically impaired as a result of this monument designation," Hardy said at the time.
But proponents of the new monument note that the designation protects not only vast public rangelands and mountains in east-central Nevada, but also the work of artist Michael Heizer, whose "City" is an earth sculpture that has taken decades to build and will be as large as the National Mall, according to media reports.
Museums including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Artin New York and the Institute of Contemporary Artin Boston have rallied to protect the federal lands surrounding Heizer’s work.
"At a time when America’s open spaces are rapidly disappearing, it is encouraging to see President Obama set aside some of Nevada’s most scenic mountains and valleys as the Basin and Range National Monument," said Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation. "This area is like no place else on earth."
The site contains "a high density of important cultural sites," said Rayette Martin, executive director of Nevadans for Cultural Preservation.
In addition, protecting the site "preserves big, intact habitat for elk, sage grouse and other important wildlife for sportsmen, Nevadans and all Americans," Chris Mero, chairman of the Nevada chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said in a statement.
These and other reasons are why Obama was right to use the Antiquities Act to designate the national monuments, said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society.
"Bedrock conservation laws like the Antiquities Act help American communities build strong ties to our shared public lands, and this law should be vigorously defended from current attempts to weaken it," Williams said.
Other 2 sites
The two other national monument sites established by Obama are also in Western states but have broader local support.
Northern California’s Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, which is located between San Francisco and Sacramento, was called for by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) in November 2014. He had first introduced legislation to protect the recreational hot spot in 2012, but it didn’t get a vote in either chamber of Congress. Along with Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), local officials and conservationists, Thompson met with Obama administration officials when they came to visit the area late last year (Greenwire, Dec. 16, 2014).
The lands were previously managed by the Forest Service, BLM and Bureau of Reclamation. They include diverse ecosystems ranging from blue oak woodlands to subalpine habitat and support native and rare plants such as Sargent’s cypress and the serpentine willow. The region protected by the monument is also home to bald and golden eagles, black bears, mountain lions and herds of wild tule elk, according to the Interior Department.
"The designation of this unique area as a national monument will help preserve the region’s natural splendor for future generations," California state Assemblymember Bill Dodd (D) said in a statement. "The national monument will provide continued recreational opportunities and will bring enhanced visitation. This is a great example of how we can protect our environment and support our local economy."
Federal protection for the Waco Mammoth National Monument in eastern Texas was twice proposed by Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from the Lone Star State. Republican Rep. Bill Flores, who represents the Waco area, and his Democratic predecessor, Chet Edwards, also both introduced bills to establish a national monument on the site, which is home to the fossil remains of 24 Columbian mammoths, some as old as 65 million years.
The bill from Edwards passed the then Democratic-controlled House in 2009 but was never taken up in the Senate.
Since it was discovered in 1978, the site had been collaboratively protected by the city of Waco, Baylor University, the Waco Mammoth Foundation and local fundraising efforts. Excavation of the site has been divided into phases and has included the Park Service since the very beginning. Boreholes drilled into the area indicate that there are even more mammoth remains yet to be unearthed.
Conservationists welcomed the site’s addition to the National Park System.
"We are grateful that President Obama has stepped forward to protect one of Texas’s unique and valuable natural treasures. The community asked for the designation and the president answered," Suzanne Dixon, senior director of regional operations for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement. "It is the nation’s only discovery of a nursery herd of Pleistocene-era mammoths, and there is no other Park Service site specifically set aside to tell their story."