New Monument Might Be a Great Idea

By Beacon Staff

Back in February somebody leaked seven pages of an Interior Department “vision document” and started a political uproar. Top brass in the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service and a few green groups were caught chatting about creating 14 new national monuments. Worse, it seems, they planned to use the same end-run strategy employed by former President Bill Clinton when – only three days before handing the keys to the White House to George W. Bush – he used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the 377,000-acre Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument in north central Montana and 12 more monuments in other states.

Now, President Barack Obama might do the same thing. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar claims it’s just “false rumors,” but recent reports verified that Interior Department higher-ups were indeed discussing the monument idea. Salazar should have been proud to admit it.

Now, all those people who didn’t vote for Obama have their shorts jerked up tight. They consider it an abuse of presidential power and insist Congress must approve any new monument.

For starters, let’s be honest about motivations. Republicans want congressional approval because they know it won’t happen, and since the Obama administration proposed it, they have to oppose it. Democrats might look neutral, publicly, but in the end, they’ll let it happen because it comes from their president. Conservationists and scientists support using the Antiquities Act because they know it’s the only way.

I say, keep our guns in their holsters until we consider the real ramifications a new Montana Plains National Monument.

Secondly, I’m betting the politics resemble that of 1910 when Congress went against the local business community by designating Glacier National Park – and we all know how that turned out for the local economy.

And finally, we might as well go right to the pivotal issue, federal land grazing allotments leased by local ranchers. Ranchers fear, as they should, that a monument designation would be the beginning of the end of their public land grazing privileges.

Proponents shouldn’t pretend grazing privileges won’t be affected, because they should be affected. Grazing allotments within the new monument should be phased out, retired or purchased, as they should, incidentally, on the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument.

I realize that I’m risking giving a few local ranchers heart attacks, but stockgrowers have had their way with most of our public lands for the past century, and the time is long overdue for a few places where natural systems emerge as the management priority. Besides that, increased economic benefits from tourism and new government jobs should more than compensate the local economy for any loss from reduced public land grazing.

While up in Canada fishing this June, our guide had grown up on a farm adjacent to Canada’s new Grasslands National Park just over the border in Saskatchewan, contiguous to the “non-proposed” monument in Montana. We asked him how that went down, and he said lots of locals opposed the park, but then new jobs and money started flowing into the struggling rural community, and only one year later, locals can already see the positive benefits.

The same will happen in Montana. This could be a rare opportunity for economic growth so hard to come by in declining rural environments. Give the monument idea some serious consideration instead of automatically opposing it because the evil federal government lurks behind the scenes.

As far as the environmental impact, well, that’s a given. A Grasslands National Monument south of the border to link, physically and ecologically, with its Canadian counterpart is a long-held pipe dream of scientists and conservationists – the protection of a sizeable section of prairie to be returned to something close to its natural condition.

But how can we get it done? Nowadays, politicians from both parties worship “local consensus.” This means all stakeholders agree on a plan so their political representatives can carry it without controversy. In this case, though, there’s little chance of consensus. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and predict local ranchers will never agree to a new monument.

That leaves the Antiquities Act as the only realistic option. If our senators and representatives don’t like it, well, tough cookies. Congress has become so politically divisive and convoluted that it’s next to impossible to do anything controversial.

Politically, the president can’t lose. Six of the 14 proposed monuments are in key swing or “purple” western states where Obama needs a few more points in 2012. Six of the 14 proposed monuments are in key swing or “purple” western states where Obama needs a couple of more points in 2012 – Arizona (Northern Sonoran Desert), Colorado (Vermillion Basin), Montana (“referred to as “Montana Plains”), New Mexico (Lesser Prairie Chicken Preserve and Otero Mesa), and Nevada (Heart of the Great Basin). Six are in fairly secure blue states – California (Bodie Hills, Modoc Plateau and Berrysessa-Snow Mountain), Oregon (Cascades Siskiyou and Owyhee Canyonlands), and Washington (San Juan Islands). The remaining two are in the internally red Utah (Cedar Mesa and San Rafael Swell) that will never turn blue regardless of what Obama does, so there’s nothing to lose.

And let’s not forget that Obama has done pathetically little to pay back the millions of environmentalists who voted for him to get relief from the Bush administration’s endless attack on environmental laws and regulations. If Obama comes through for us on the monuments, perhaps disenfranchised Democratic and independent voters might vote for him again in 2012. Most people who oppose the new monuments voted against Obama in 2008 and will do it again whether he uses the powers granted the President under the Antiquities Act.

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