President Obama’s use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect 1.8 million acres of the Mojave Desert under national monument status carries both direct and indirect benefits to the environment.
The direct benefit, of course, is that the natural beauty of these lands — and the habitat they provide for an array of species — will be protected from heavy mining, off-road vehicle intrusions, cattle ranching, development and other potential threats to the ecosystem.
The indirect benefit will be to the planet’s climate: Desert soils serve as a significant sponge for carbon. Disturbing them for almost any form of development — including solar panels and wind turbines, to name two uses that have been suggested — releases that carbon and thus offsets the benefits of the resulting renewable energy.
It was a bold move for a president who has been heavily criticized for exercising his executive authority. While the scope of the monument designations is large, the use of the Antiquities Act is anything but unusual over the past century, in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
The Antiquities Act, enacted as a way to give presidents the authority to unilaterally designate public lands as national monuments, was first used by President Theodore Roosevelt to designate the 1,000-foot rock monolith Devils Tower in Wyoming. He invoked the act 16 more times during his tenure. President Bill Clinton was the most liberal in using the act to protect cultural and natural landmarks.
While Obama is on solid historical footing, his administration was well aware that unilateral imposition of federal protections often have generated blowback — sometimes with Congress for bypassing the legislative process, and sometimes with states for rolling over local preferences for greater human activity on the site.
In the case of the Mojave Desert, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has been a great champion of preservation for many years. She sponsored the Desert Protection Act of 1994, which created the Mojave National Preserve and elevated Death Valley (declared a national monument by President Herbert Hoover) and Joshua Tree (declared a national monument by President Franklin D. Roosevelt) to national park status. However, her more recent legislative efforts to expand desert conservation have been stymied by Republican opposition.
The Obama monument designations effectively provide buffer zones around the previously protected desert. It is important to note that his actions do not impair anyone’s property rights. The bulk of the land had been purchased by individuals and conservation groups that donated it to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in anticipation of permanent federal protection action.
Feinstein said she was “full of pride and joy knowing that future generations will be able to explore these national monuments and that the land will be as pristine as it is today.”
Those visitors can thank Feinstein for her tireless efforts, and the president for assuring they came to fruition.