Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Land made for you and me

IN GENERAL, any law that presidents mostly use in their second terms has unusual power to cause rows. Take the American Antiquities Act of 1906, giving presidents the right to protect landmarks and landscapes by declaring them national monuments—in the process bypassing Congress, which must approve new national parks and formal “wilderness” reserves. Safely past his last election, Barack Obama has been using the act with a will in recent weeks, creating a new national monument in the woods of Maine and more than quadrupling the size of a marine monument north-west of Hawaii, itself declared by George W. Bush during his second term. In all, Mr Obama has created more than two dozen national monuments, protecting more square miles of land and sea than any predecessor.

If these actions delight some, they alarm others—notably folk who run cattle, mine, log or otherwise exploit nature’s bounty in picturesque bits of America. One such place is the Owyhee basin of eastern Oregon, a remote landscape of wild rivers and vertiginous cliffs, and high desert edged with red and pink rocks. Before Mr Obama steps down, environmentalists, outdoor-leisure companies (including Keen, an Oregon-based shoe-maker) and some Democratic politicians want him to create an Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument covering as much as 2.5m acres.

Lots of monument-backers say that their main concern is possible oil and mineral extraction on what are today federally owned rangelands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), not grazing cattle. But ranchers are deeply wary. Bob Skinner, whose family reached the Owyhee basin in 1863, is so alarmed that, one morning earlier this summer, he took Lexington up in his own light aircraft on an endearingly transparent mission: to badmouth a landscape that, deep down, he clearly loves. That’s lava from an eruption 600 years ago, Mr Skinner shouts over the Cessna’s engine, pointing to an otherworldly expanse of crusted black rock. Terrible, razor-sharp lava, he scowls: “Will cripple a dog in ten minutes.” A deep canyon is “pretty”, he concedes. But as he putters 100 feet above flat, sagebrush-scented steppes that lie beyond it, he demands: “Once you’ve seen one mile of it, what’s more of it?” He is echoed by Larry Wilson, an elected commissioner for the surrounding region, Malheur County, also along for the ride. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees down there, says Mr Wilson: “This isn’t the kind of stuff that draws tourists.” Should any hikers try their luck, Mr Wilson adds doomily, the county has a tiny search-and-rescue budget. As the steppes roll on below, the men point out dirt roads that they fear might be barred to motor vehicles in a national monument, or creek-crossings that might be closed, forcing ranchers on 60-mile detours. Perhaps most of all, ranchers fear that a monument will open the door to endless lawsuits by environmental groups.

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