Obama puts cultural sites under environmental protection

US president Barack Obama has further cemented his often-controversial environmental legacy by preserving two environmentally sensitive sites in the desert wilderness of the American West, both of which have long been fought over. John Dyer reports from Boston.

Bear Ears National Monument is one of two cultural landscapes that outgoing US president Barack Obama has placed under environmental protection. (Image credit: Bureau of Land Management)

Bear Ears National Monument is one of two cultural landscapes that outgoing US president Barack Obama has placed under environmental protection. (Image credit: Bureau of Land Management)

Outgoing US president Barack Obama wants to go down in history for his efforts to protect natural and historic monuments. Last week he placed two sites in Utah and Nevada under protection, both of which have been controversial because of disagreements over the use of public land.

3,500-year-old rock dwellings

The two new sites are the 550,000-hectare Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah and the 120-hectare Gold Butte National Monument near Las Vegas in Nevada.

In addition to stunning landscapes and majestic natural rock formations, the areas include awe-inspiring prehistoric rock carvings and 3,500-years-old Pueblo rock dwellings.

“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes,” said Obama in a statement.

Sacred landscapes

Native American tribes in the region consider the areas sacred.

“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” said Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, in a conference call with the press. “These places — the rocks, the wind, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”

Importantly, a unique newly created commission of Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Pueblo of Zuni tribes will manage the Bear Ear site.

Thanks to the new designation, new mining or oil drilling will be prohibited in the regions, but hunters, fisherman and others could still use the land.

Obama’s protection legacy

The two new monuments bring the total number of hectares that Obama has preserved using a law to protect antiquities to 223 million hectares, more than twice as much as the president who set aside the next-highest amount of land, George W. Bush. Under the law, the president has the power to protect sites without congressional approval.

Obama has invoked the antiquities law 29 times during his eight years in office. Only ex-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt has used it more often, at 30 times, and Obama is reportedly considering designating monuments in the wildernesses of California and Oregon and Civil War-era sites in Alabama and South Carolina before he leaves office.

Trump can’t overturn designation

Republicans have criticised Obama for supposedly overreaching using the law.

“This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand,” wrote Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, Twitter. “I will work tirelessly with Congress and the incoming Trump administration to honour the will of Utahns and undo this monument designation.”

Lee and others were indignant because legal precedent suggests president-elect Donald Trump won’t be able to reverse Obama’s protections when he assumes office next month.

“In terms of whether it can be overturned, no,” said Christie Goldfuss of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create monuments, but does not provide explicit authority to undo them.”

Republicans threatening lawsuits

Still, Representative Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, warned that Trump would likely attempt to overturn Obama’s decisions, setting the stage for lawsuits and a fight in Congress to amend the law.

Republicans have already proposed curtailing the Antiquities Act. Obama has vetoed those measures. It’s not clear if Trump would accept them or not when he is in the White House and would have the power to make designations himself.

“That battle will come. I don’t see it going away,” said Grijalva. “How willing is this new president to give up power?”

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