WASHINGTON - The late founder of the United Farm Workers of America will land monumental recognition next week, when President Barack Obama travels to the southern San Joaquin Valley to formally establish the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument.
In his first presidential visit to the region, Obama will designate Chavez's former Tehachipi Mountains headquarters in Keene, east of Bakersfield off Highway 58, as protected under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
The remote property known as Nuestra Senora Reina de la Paz, or Our Lady Queen of Peace, served as the national headquarters of the UFW from the early 1970s until Chavez's death in 1993.
"La Paz was at the center of some of the most significant civil rights moments in our nation's history, and by designating it a national monument, Chavez's legacy will be preserved and shared to inspire generations to come," Obama said in a statement.
Obama's decision won praise from those who have sought to honor Chavez since his death. Cesar Chavez Day is already commemorated in California and Texas, and earlier this year the Labor Department renamed one of its auditoriums after him.
Last year, the Obama administration added the Keene property to the National Register of Historic Places.
"This new national monument will serve as a lasting tribute not only to Cesar Chavez, but to the millions of hard-working men and women he fought for, who have contributed so much to our country," Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said in a statement.
The timing of Obama's announcement was a surprise, but the decision was politically explicable.
Now in a tight race with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Obama is certain to win California but is still angling to motivate Hispanic voters nationwide. Hispanic voters currently favor Obama over Romney by a 2-to-1 margin nationwide, according to a Fox News Latino poll in September.
There is also a tradition of presidents declaring national monuments in election years. Sometimes, they invite blow-back.
In April 2000, while Vice President Al Gore was running for the White House, then-President Bill Clinton established the Giant Sequoia National Monument in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. The monument now spans some 353,000 acres.
Clinton's action excited environmentalists but alarmed local loggers and officials who feared local jobs would be lost. Several lawmakers subsequently introduced bills designed to slow presidential designation of new national monuments.
One bill introduced last year, authored in part by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, would require Congress to approve presidential designations of new national monuments within two years of White House action. The bill's co-sponsors include House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, whose congressional district includes the proposed new Chavez monument.
"The political exploitation of current law to impose draconian regulations on public lands and to lock up our nation's vast natural resources must end," Nunes declared when introducing an earlier version of his bill.
The new Chavez monument will not be nearly as large as the Giant Sequoia monument and others of that ilk, but it does have the potential to resurrect controversy among the Western growers that Chavez's union struggled with for years.
The new Cesar E. Chavez National Monument is the fourth established by Obama; others include the Fort Ord National Monument on the California coast, a region near and dear to the heart of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who formerly represented the area in Congress.
The 1906 Antiquities Act authorizes the president to reserve the "smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected." To date, presidents have designated about 124 monuments spanning some 70 million acres.
Many national monuments, like the new one honoring Chavez, are relatively small; others are huge, including one in Alaska that stretches over nearly 11 million acres.