With two new massive set-asides in his final weeks in office, President Obama has moved aggressively to solidify a legacy on public lands that’s often put the White House at odds with state officials who want to see more local control over land use.
Mr. Obama already held the record for creating or expanding national monuments when he used the Antiquities Act last week to set aside a combined 1.65 million acres for Bears Ears in Utah and Golden Butte in Nevada.
In doing so, however, Mr. Obama also solidified his reputation for using public lands to reward his friends and enrage his enemies.
Environmentalists cheered his commitment to conservation, but Republican lawmakers, state officials and locals accused him of ignoring their input in order to score political points, lock up productive lands and expand federal control.
Rep. Rob Bishop, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said the hotly disputed designations represent business as usual for Mr. Obama.
“Much of the agenda, like the monuments, was done behind closed doors, in the shadows, in secret, and would otherwise be rejected under established democratic processes,” said Mr. Bishop. “They systematically abused executive powers through unilateral rules, orders and memorandums designed to make energy and resource development uneconomical.”
In the name of environmental protection, the Obama administration has tightened its hold on federal lands, adding layers of regulation on energy development, halting new coal leases, using the Endangered Species Act to restrict grazing, and taking a hard line on violations.
“Keep it in the ground, lock it up and let it burn. That’s been the policy for the last eight years,” said Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, who heads the American Lands Council.
The result has been a backlash by groups such as the council, which formed in 2012 to counter the Obama administration’s expansion of federal authority by calling for transferring control of federal lands to the states.
Environmentalists have responded by doubling down with a push to stop energy development on public lands altogether with the “keep it in the ground” movement.
Mr. Obama’s final year in office has also seen a surge in unrest from protesters on public lands. In January, anger on the ground turned deadly when Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed at an FBI roadblock during an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon.
The protest centered two ranchers sentenced to five-year prison terms after fires they set to control weeds spread to federal land.
On the other end of the political spectrum, thousands of protesters converged on federal land near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to object to the administration’s approval of the Dakota Access pipeline easement near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
Hundreds have been arrested by local authorities since Aug. 10, but the Obama administration has taken a hands-off approach to the occupation. The protesters scored a win Dec. 5 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to withdraw the easement in order to conduct another environmental review.
In the administration’s corner are those who argue that Mr. Obama has provided balance to a public-lands policy that has in the past favored industries, including energy and agriculture, at the expense of conservation.
Matt Lee-Ashley, senior fellow and director of public lands for the liberal Center for American Progress, said part of the tension has come from the changing balance of power.
“I think if you look back for decades, extractive industries have had greater power in Washington and have had a big say in the decisions about the management of public lands, and we’re seeing greater balance now from the outdoor recreation industry, for example,” said Mr. Lee-Ashley. “A lot of states are weighing in on behalf of conservation and recreation. There are more people sitting at the table making these decisions, including conservationists, recreationists and Native American leaders.”
He said he saw Mr. Obama’s approach to environmental protection on public lands changed after his 2012 reelection victory.
“We saw the pace of conservation work pick up dramatically in the second term,” Mr. Lee-Ashley said. “There was a much greater balance between development and conservation on public lands in the last two or three years of his presidency.”
Mr. Obama has countered naysayers by pointing out that oil and gas development on public lands has increased during his administration, but his critics have argued that the increase has been far greater on private land.
The average leased for energy extraction on public lands has decreased steadily since Mr. Obama took office, according to figures from the House Natural Resources Committee.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, blamed in part what she described as the Obama administration’s “bureaucratic stifling.”
“There’s just so many ways that they have blocked productive uses of federal land,” said Ms. Sgamma. “Making it more difficult at every step of the process, whether you’re trying to graze on an allotment that’s been in your family for over 100 years, or trying to move forward with your leases and get through the environmental analysis that the government simply won’t complete.”
Whether Mr. Obama’s latest monuments will survive is also in question. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has vowed to file a lawsuit, while Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, and others have called for the designations to be repealed.
“We look forward to working with President-elect Trump to follow through on his commitment to repeal midnight regulations,” Mr. Chaffetz said in a statement. “We will work to repeal this top-down decision and replace it with one that garners local support and creates a balanced, win-win solution.”