Until earlier this month, Congress hadn’t acted to protect a single new acre of public land as a national park, national conservation area or wilderness area since 2009.
This congressional failure is not for lack of opportunity. A report by the advocacy groups Center for American Progress and Center for Western Priorities highlights 10 high-profile conservation bills, including two on federal public lands in California, that have languished despite strong backing at the local level and from members of Congress.
Following President Barack Obama’s March 11 proclamation adding the 1,660-acre Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands along the Mendocino coast to the offshore California Coastal National Monument, this report should give a nudge to Congress – and a list to the president for action if Congress fails to act.
Under the landmark Antiquities Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, presidents by proclamation can give enhanced protections to existing public lands owned by the federal government. They have used that authority to create new national monuments and enlarge existing ones.
Among the 10 places highlighted in the report are our own Berryessa Snow Mountain and, further south, the Mojave Desert in Southern California. If Congress won’t act, the president should.
Led by Rep. Mike Thompson and Sen. Barbara Boxer, 11 members of California’s congressional delegation are sponsoring legislation to get National Conservation Area status for the federal lands in the 100-mile stretch from Lake Berryessa to 7,000-foot Snow Mountain, including the Cedar Roughs, Cache Creek and Snow Mountain wilderness areas.
The gateway communities see tremendous potential in national designation, and the bill is widely supported by more than 200 businesses, local conservationists and recreation groups, like the Blue Ribbon Coalition and the International Mountain Bike Association. Yet it hasn’t come to the floor of either the House or Senate for a vote.
Then there is Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s California Desert Protection Act, which has been on the table for five years. In the growing area northeast of Los Angeles, it would create two new national monuments – the Mojave Trails and the Sand to Snow National Monuments – connecting with the Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and the Mojave National Preserve that draw visitors to see wildflowers, bighorn sheep and 100-year-old desert tortoises.
This bill, too, has broad support from more than 100 cities, Indian tribes, businesses and community groups. Yet it hasn’t moved.
The report highlights congressional “dysfunction and partisanship” as the culprit. But as with Point Arena-Stornetta, if Congress fails to act, the president should. One way or another, 2014 should be the time to catch up on a public lands legacy.