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Thursday, July 8, 2010

No new national monuments?

Republican Calif. Rep. Devin Nune, who is no friend to the environment, has introduced a bill in Congress that would require congressional approval of any new national monument designations. It's an obvious reaction to the hoo ha that erupted when an internal Interior Department document was made public a while back, along with its list of places across the West that are worthy of protection. Even though the document emphasized that public input would be considered prior to any action, many a Western Republican lawmaker siezed on the opportunity to bash Obama/Salazar for trying to make an underhanded land grab. They saw in the document echoes of Bill Clinton's sweeping national monument designation run back in the 1990s, which perhaps most significantly made a remote, extraordinary chunk of canyon country into the Escalante Grand Staircases National Monument. I wrote about the list, etc., over at High Country News' Goat Blog.

While I have my own ambivalence when it comes to turning normal public land into national monuments (because I believe it increases the danger of commercialization of the land and surrounding towns), I'm still a big supporter in the presidential power to make such designations. That's because it's really one of the last possibilities of sweeping land protection; one of the last ways a special place can be set aside relatively quickly, protecting it from the impacts of extractive industries and motorized recreation, among other things.

In contrast, look at the wilderness designation process. Yes, Wilderness is a much higher order of protection than a monument, but it's also almost impossible to come by these days. Even the most carefully crafted, collaborative -- often watered down -- wilderness bills tend to linger in Congress for years, during which time they are watered down some more. Obstructionist lawmakers use procedural tricks to hold up the bills to make points about things like government spending. Etc.

Organizations such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are admirably trying to get wilderness designation for big chunks of southeastern Utah's beleaguered canyon country. And they should continue the fight. But we should all acknowledge that the canyons' best bet is probably a series of sweeping national monument designations, done quickly. It might also be Obama's best bet for any kind of environmental legacy.

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