In yet another shot at the incoming Trump administration, President Obama on Wednesday designated about 1.6 million acres of Western land as national monuments, cordoning off the massive areas from energy development while vowing that his successor can’t reverse his actions.
The president designated about 1.35 million acres in Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument, setting aside land that American Indian tribes say contains sacred cultural and archaeological sites. He also established a commission comprised of the federal Agriculture and Interior departments that, in conjunction with tribes, will oversee the land.
Mr. Obama also claimed 300,000 acres in Clark County, Nevada, as the Gold Butte National Monument. The two designations add to Mr. Obama’s record-setting use of national monuments and give more fuel to detractors who say he is trying to block domestic energy production before Mr. Trump assumes the presidency.
“Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archaeological sites and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes,” the president said in a statement.
“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,” he said.
The moves drew the ire of Republican lawmakers and other critics who long have accused Mr. Obama of abusing his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate monuments, arguing that he is stretching the bounds of power to stop fossil fuel exploration.
Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he and other Republicans will work tirelessly to reverse the Bears Ears designation.
“Mr. President, I want you to know that we are saddened by this abuse of the Antiquities Act. It is sad that this entire process has been done in secrecy and in shadows,” he said. “And Mr. President, I want you to know as Utahns, we will use every tool at our disposal to do the right thing — whether it be legislative action, judicial action, even executive action — because what we have seen so far is a poor procedure. It’s a poor policy and it reflects poorly on your legacy. As Utahns, we will fight to right this wrong.”
But Mr. Obama seems to have stopped short of his original plans. In a joint statement Wednesday evening, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, Arizona Republicans, blasted the federal land grab but expressed gratitude that their state wasn’t included.
“President Obama seems to have heard the message that Arizonans are not on board with plans for Washington to lock up another 1.7 million acres in our state. As frustrating as it is to see federal land grabs in Utah and Nevada today, we are encouraged that the administration does not appear to be moving toward another national monument designation in Arizona at this time,” the two senators said.
Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, say Wednesday’s actions cement Mr. Obama’s legacy as an environmental champion.
“President Obama is a courageous man. I could not be more grateful to him and his team for working with me to make this happen, and for everything he has done to protect public lands in Nevada,” Mr. Reid said in a statement. “By designating Gold Butte a national monument, President Obama has shown once again why he is one of the greatest environmental presidents in American history.”
Mr. Obama has set a record for the amount of land and water labeled national monuments. Before Wednesday’s designations, he had earmarked at least 553 million acres of land and water.
Mr. Obama’s unprecedented use of national monuments could spur a landmark legal fight once Mr. Trump assumes office.
Congressional Republicans have encouraged Mr. Trump to revoke some of his predecessor’s monuments, but no U.S. president has taken such action. There is no clear legal answer on whether Mr. Trump would have the authority to remove a designation.
Some legal scholars have said the question ultimately would end up before the Supreme Court if Mr. Trump pressed the case.
The Antiquities Act, enacted in 1906, explicitly gives a president power to designate a monument but does not mention removing a designation. The Obama administration thinks Mr. Trump would be powerless to act.
“We do not see that the Trump administration has the authority to do this,” Christy Goldfuss, managing director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday afternoon.