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Biden's National Monument expansion applauded by allies, but big obstacles loom

The Valley of the Gods, a part of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
Claire Harbage
The Valley of the Gods, a part of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

BOISE, Idaho — A presidential order expanding the boundaries of two national monuments in the West has renewed attention to whether the federal government is even able to manage its existing monument lands 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 additional acres of protection and came amid pressure by Democrats and some Native Americans, who see the lands as culturally important.

"It's a good day for California," said Vice President Kamala Harris, who had tried to push the added protections through Congress while a U.S. Senator from the state.

The designations, alongside a similar sweeping proclamation in Nevada last year, are part of the administration's goal to protect thirty percent of U.S. lands and coastal waters by 2030. They're also seen as a way to bolster support among younger voters worried about climate change in an election year.

"There is always politics at play. These are federal lands," says Prof. Richard White, a western historian at Stanford University.

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

"Biden clearly has made a calculation that he'll win more votes than lose votes doing what he's doing in Nevada and California," White says.

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

But today, in some corners of the West, there's growing criticism that Democratic administrations are creating monuments effectively in name only.

A cow grazes near one of the namesake Bears Ears at the national monument in Utah.
Claire Harbage / NPR
A cow grazes near one of the namesake Bears Ears at the national monument in Utah.

"The only trace of a national monument at Gold Butte is the entrance sign," says 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 the Gold Butte and Basin and Range national monuments in Nevada. Both were designated under Obama. Gold Butte lies adjacent to the Cliven Bundy Ranch, site of an armed standoff over cattle grazing in 2014, and where the recalcitrant rancher's cows continue to illegally roam without permits.

"There are no visitor services in particular," Donnelly says. "There aren't toilets, trash collection, the roads are not maintained and are in badly degraded condition. It's kind of the Wild West."

In Utah,legal battles have led to confusion and delays in managing the Bears Ears National Monument, first designated in 2017 and considered sacred by many tribes in the Four Corners region. Only this year did a draft management planget released.

Nearby, the Grand Staircase Escalante has become mired in politics too: it was first protected by President Bill Clinton, then shrunk by President Donald Trump, then restored by Biden.

"There are a lot of questions around whether the federal government can manage the current swath of land that it's taken under its wing," says Derek Monson, chief growth officer with the conservative Utah think tank, the Sutherland Institute.

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

"It increases people's interest in going there," Monson says. "The goal is to preserve or conserve landscapes and sacred sites for Native American tribes and you might actually bring more people in which has the opposite effect."

Case in point, the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada has seen a reported surge in visitors. But environmentalist Patrick Donnelly, whose group is suing, says there's a simple solution: Congress should adequately fund federal land agencies to address these growing pressures."

"Those are really important questions and that's why we're filing this lawsuit," he says. "But we unequivocally support [more] monument designations as a way to protect these lands forever."

Donnelly says there's more pressure than ever to expand mining and livestock grazing and other industrial activity on U.S. public lands that don't have the added protections of being national monuments.

Copyright 2024 NPR

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.