In the final days of his administration, President Obama has decided that with the stroke of pen, he shall further consolidate direct federal control over lands within Western states. Specifically, Obama created the Bear Ears National Monument and the Gold Butte National Monument in Utah and Nevada, respectively. The Obama Administration claims that Obama’s unilateral edict was necessary because Congress had not passed any legislation on the matter. Indeed, the Obama-appointed Interior Secretary stated that “protecting the area using legislation would have been preferable” but that in the absence of legislation, it was necessary to simply declare the lands to be National Monuments. In other words, the democratic, constitutional process of Congressional lawmaking was inconvenient for the President. So, he decided to rule by proclamation instead, giving the Governor of Utah barely an hour’s notice before the proclamation was made public.
It’s Not About Conservation — It’s About Federal ControlNow, we should first note that the overwhelming majority of lands newly designated as National Monument lands were already federal lands to begin with, and have been controlled largely by the US Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Moreover, it is not the case that opponents to the new designation are mostly people who want to privatize the land or make it easier to mine or develop the land. In fact, many opponents of the designation oppose it because they fear Monument status will lead to greater development of the area as a tourist mecca. In other cases, members of Indian tribes object to making sacred lands part of a federally-controlled National Monument area.
And, of course, throughout Western states, public lands continue to be a lucrative source of tourist dollars and eco-tourism. The old caricature of pro-conservationist leftists and strip-mining conservatives has long been just that: a caricature. The reality is that nowadays many private firms and local governments depend on public lands for their livelihood and revenue, and these groups have quite a bit of influence at the state legislatures in question. Preserving natural spaces from development can mean big business and Western-state politicians know it...It is not at all clear that markets or local governments would prefer that land be used for agricultural purposes as opposed to other purposes. For example, were Rocky Mountain National Park to become a locally-controlled park or state park, there is, realistically speaking, zero chance that it would be handed over to ranchers or miners. The park is far too valuable to the local economy as part of the recreation and tourism industries. To turn the park into range land would devastate the economies of the local communities, many of which contain wealthy and influential voters...There is little doubt, however, that much of the controversy over the site will be framed like this: on one side are the conscientious environmentalists and others who want to preserve these pristine lands from destruction. On the other side are oil executives who want to strip-mine the land. The real debate here, however, isn’t over strip mining vs. conservation. It’s about whether or not a president thousands of miles away can — with the stroke of a pen — dictate how millions of acres in a faraway state can be used, and do so over the protestations of the state legislature. Nor can it be demonstrated that federal agencies are better custodians of lands than are states. Indeed, the federal government has routinely been more inclined to allow overgrazing on federal lands while subsidizing ranchers at taxpayer expense. It is the states that have demonstrated more prudent stewardship of resources...more