Obama Just Expanded the California Coastal National Monument

Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands. | Photo: Courtesy Dept. of the Inteior

President Obama's 2014 State of the Union speech contained lots of promises. They won't all be fulfilled, of course, but one of them, only hinted at in his January 28 address, has just been realized.

The intimation was tucked into a paragraph focused on how America was achieving greater energy independence and why natural gas was "the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change." Here's Obama closing thought, a seemingly off-handed remark: "And while we're at it, I'll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations."

Those provocative words may have slipped below many people's radar, but to activists pressing the president to use the Antiquities Act (1906) to set aside additional wildlands, they were an executive elixir. Because the act empowers Obama to designate new or expand the limits of current national monuments without congressional oversight -- a privilege Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton used repeatedly -- the signal seemed clear. The preservation of more scenic and significant landscapes was in the offing.

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Among those cheering this prospect were a committed group of citizens in Mendocino County. For nearly three years they have been advocating that the Stornetta Public Lands, a 1,665-acre rugged tract fronting the Pacific, become part of the California Coastal National Monument. Such an inclusion, they reasoned, made sense on environmental grounds. Although U.S. Bureau of Land Management would continue as its steward, this site would gain greater protection with the new designation. It also would have a beneficial economic impact, luring an increasing number of visitors to southern Mendocino, a stimulus to local commerce.

They will now have a chance to test those propositions: On Tuesday, at a small White House ceremony, President Obama signed the order that folded the Stornetta property into the national monument. With the stroke of his pen, he made the gateway town of Port Arena (pop. 449) a very happy place. "People are just ecstatic," Ann Cole, executive director of the Mendocino Land Trust, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. "They've been working so hard on this."

Obama's invocation of the Antiquities Act is a partial consequence of Inside-the-Beltway gridlock. The House of Representatives had unanimously approved the relevant bill that local Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Marin) had introduced in 2013 but its paired legislation in the Senate, which Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein authored, had not yet to come to the floor.

By acting in advance of the legislative branch, the administration hoped to bolster its environmental cred. Mike Matz, who directs the U.S. public lands program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, suggested as much to the Washington Post: "The fact that the President is willing to exercise his authority is more than symbolic. It's a step toward more balance between protection and development. And, if Congress gets into a healthy competition with him over which branch can do more, all the better."

That land-protection rush is highly unlikely to occur anytime soon, given the very partisan split in Congress that gave the president the leeway he thought he needed to use the Antiquities Act.

Indeed, the situation on Capitol Hill now is not dissimilar to that governing the political landscape Bill Clinton occupied when in 2000 he employed the Antiquities Act to set aside the California Coastal National Monument; it is telling that John Podesta, one of Obama's counselors, was among Clinton's advisers urging him to sign off on its enabling legislation.

Whatever the backroom wheeling and dealing, Clinton and Obama did right. The now-expanded national monument covers 1,100 miles of some of the world's most spectacular coastline and offshore features. Running north from Mexico to Oregon, it comprises thousands of islands, exposed reefs, pinnacles, and seastacks, marine habitat that is home to such pelagic species as pelicans, murres, cormorants, and gulls, petrels, and auklets. There, they are joined by Elephant seals and at least two threatened species, the California otter and the Stellar's sea lion. A passing parade of gray whales, on their migration south and north, moves through the monument's chilled waters and the tidal pools are a treasure trove of life.

The Stornetta addition will add to these riches. Key among its contributions is the Garcia River estuary, which the BLM has identified as critical habitat for Coho and Chinook salmon, and for the Point Arena mountain beaver, Behren's silver spot butterfly, western snowy plover, and California red-legged frog. Adding immense aesthetic value are the wind- and tide-carved bluffs, promontories offering a visual and aural feast of brilliant sunsets, barking seals, and the wash of water on rock.

That there are other sites of immense beauty and intense biodiversity deserving presidential, if not congressional, action is clear. Among those special places are the 500,000 acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in southeastern New Mexico, the similarly vast Boulder-White Clouds wilderness in eastern-central Idaho, and the 1.4 million acres dubbed Greater Canyonlands that surrounds Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

Their sheer size is not the defining issue. Politics is. As Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell observed several times before and after her visit to Point Arena last fall, the administration will act when it perceives that a request for increased protection of federal lands has full community buy-in and across-the-aisle support.

Mendocino was able to demonstrate the necessary unity, helped in no small measure by its location in a solidly Democratic district in a solidly Democratic state. The other proposed landscapes, for all their many natural virtues, are in regions where environmental preservation is a deeply contested, and often reviled, principle. President Obama has no interest in reigniting the kind of destructive furor that erupted in Utah in 1996 after Bill Clinton announced the creation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and which continues to fuel Sagebrush Rebellion activism, including the current governor's peculiar legal battle to take over all federal lands in the Beehive State.

To wish that things were different is to wish that evocative language about nature's integrity could mute partisan discourse and the hyperbole on which it depends. To hope that we can listen to how words sound about places we love, and by immersing ourselves in their galvanizing essence be persuaded to act in these wildlands' defense.

Such a sensibility is announced in the opening words to Clinton's proclamation creating the California Coastal National Monument:

"The islands, rocks, and pinnacles...overwhelm the viewer, as white-capped waves crash into the vertical cliffs or deeply crevassed surge channels and frothy water empties back into the ocean."

In this surge -- relentless, enduring, and powerful -- lies our charge.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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