The expansion of Biden’s National Monument is welcomed by allies, but major obstacles lie ahead

BOISE, Idaho – A presidential order that redraws the boundaries of two national monuments in the West has once again focused attention on the federal government’s ability to manage its existing landmark areas that have been protected since 2016.

At a recent White House ceremony, President Biden signed executive orders that dramatically expanded the boundaries of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument outside Los Angeles and the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument north of San Francisco. The area included about 150,000 hectares of additional protection and came under pressure from Democrats and some Native Americans, who view the land as culturally important.

“It’s a good day for California,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, who as a U.S. senator from the state had tried to push the additional protections through Congress.

The designations, along with a similarly sweeping proclamation in Nevada last year, are part of the administration’s goal to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and coastal waters by 2030. They are also seen as a way to shore up support among younger voters concerned about climate change. in an election year.

“There is always politics involved. These are federal lands,” said Prof. Richard White, a Western historian at Stanford University.

White says Democratic presidents have become good at using an obscure law called the Antiquities Act to protect large swaths of land while conservation laws have repeatedly stalled in gridlocked Congress.

“Biden has clearly calculated that he will win more votes than he will lose votes by doing what he is doing in Nevada and California,” White said.

Since taking office in 2021, Biden has protected approximately 40 million acres of land by executive order. It is still far less than former President Obama’s resume, which included the designation of 29 new national monuments and the expansion of another five during his two terms in office. President Jimmy Carter also protected 56 million acres in Alaska by designating seventeen national monuments there in 1978.

But today there is increasing criticism in some parts of the West that democratic governments are essentially creating monuments in name only.

A cow grazes at one of the eponymous Bears Ears at the national monument in Utah.

Claire Harbage/NPR



A cow grazes at one of the eponymous Bears Ears at the national monument in Utah.

“The only trace of a national monument at Gold Butte is the entrance sign,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The conservation group sued the Biden administration this spring over its alleged failure to implement management plans for Nevada’s Gold Butte and Basin and Range national monuments. Both were appointed under Obama. Gold Butte is next to the Cliven Bundy Ranch, where an armed standoff occurred in 2014 over cattle grazing, and where the recalcitrant rancher’s cows continue to roam illegally without a permit.

“There are no specific visitor services,” Donnelly said. “There are no toilets, no waste collection, the roads are not maintained and are in poor condition. It’s a bit of the Wild West.”

In Utah, legal battles have led to confusion and delays in the management of Bears Ears National Monument, which was first designated in 2017 and is considered sacred by many tribes in the Four Corners region. Only this year was a draft management plan published.

Nearby, the Grand Staircase Escalante is also mired in politics: It was first protected by President Bill Clinton, then shrunk by President Donald Trump, then restored by Biden.

“There are a lot of questions about whether the federal government can manage the current amount of land under its control,” said Derek Monson, head of growth at the conservative think tank Sutherland Institute in Utah.

The government already faces a major maintenance backlog in repairing roads, trails and other infrastructure across the country’s vast public lands system, he says. And for Monson, there is a paradox with all the new monument designations. They tend to bring crowds that can threaten the very land that needs to be protected.

“It increases people’s interest in going there,” Monson said. “The goal is to preserve or preserve landscapes and sacred places for Native American tribes and you might actually bring in more people, which has the opposite effect.”

An example of this is that Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada has seen an increase in visitors. But environmental activist Patrick Donnelly, whose group is suing, says there is a simple solution: Congress must adequately fund federal land agencies to address these growing pressures.”

“These are very important questions and that is why we filed this lawsuit,” he says. “But we unequivocally support (more) monument designations as a way to protect these lands forever.”

Donnelly says there is more pressure than ever to expand mining, livestock grazing and other industrial activities on U.S. public lands that don’t have the added protection of being national monuments.

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