Obama Shuts Down 500,000 Acres

President Obama signed an executive order last week to place 500,000 acres under the “permanent protection” of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument (OMDP) in south central New Mexico.  Despite Obama’s claim that “there is no time to waste to preserve our precious resources,” there was no urgency and little justification for the creation of this federal park.

In this case, unlike others, Obama’s executive order was not unconstitutional; the Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president authority to bypass Congress and designate a national monument.  Although lawful, the order supplanted a bill under consideration in Congress, introduced by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico less than six months ago.  Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) sponsored a similar bill in 2010.  According to Govtrack.us, Udall’s bill, the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks Conservation Act, had a 2% chance of being enacted, meaning that Obama’s executive order had little support among the people’s elected representatives in Congress.

In his announcement speech, Obama listed three reasons for creating the new Monument:

1. Protection of historical sites: the Antiquities Act, signed by Teddy Roosevelt, granted power to the president normally reserved for the legislature because of an urgent need to stop “pot hunters” from removing Indian artifacts from federal lands.  Congress has since had 108 years to deliberate, and one might think that the normal workings of the legislative branch would be sufficient to protect any remaining antiquities.  In March 2014, the House voted to put limits on the Antiquities Act, passing the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation (EPIC) of Natural Monuments Act.  It is likely to die in the Senate.

Regarding the antiquities in OMDP: Senator Udall’s bill mentions only one historical site in a request for a boundary adjustment of the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument.  The most significant historical site was therefore already protected by a national monument, which was created by Congress in March 2009, without a presidential executive order.

Obama refers to two other historical sites:

Billy the Kid took cover in the Robledo Mountains and literally left his mark –- inscribing his name into what we now know as “Outlaw Rock.”  You can see it today, and I want to make sure that future generations can see it as well.   Legend has it that Apache chief Geronimo hid in these same mountains and staged a miraculous escape from what is now called “Geronimo’s Cave.”

Outlaw Rock is hardly in any imminent danger of destruction, and as for Geronimo, the president cleverly used the phrase “legend has it.”  According to Wikipedia, stories about Geronimo’s Cave “are in all likelihood apocryphal.”

2. Preservation of “pristine landscapes”: Obama described OMDP rather inelegantly: “You got massive rocks that jut up 9,000 feet in the air and stretch for 20 miles, like the organ pipes of a giant.”  Obama doesn’t mention that the entire half-million acres already had protected status.  It was and is owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management, designated until last week as the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks Recreation Area, containing eight Wilderness Study Areas, which will be included in the new monument.

The monument designation preserves existing rights, which include grazing, off-road driving, and various recreational activities.  The difference is that BLM land usage is not static, while monument status freezes the usage of the land.  We are thus making it extremely difficult for our descendants to build new roads, extend grazing rights, or, for example, develop a significant discovery of rare-earth minerals in an unexceptional corner of the OMDP.

Monument status is, in fact, less restrictive than the bills in Congress, which proposed wilderness status for 250,000 acres, withdrawing rights for OHV use.

3. Economic stimulus.  According to Senator Udall:

Designating a national monument would put the Organ Mountains…on recreation maps around the world, attracting tourists to Southern New Mexico, creating jobs and bringing in millions of dollars in tourism revenue.

The White House boasted about “President Obama's plan to grow America's economy through tourism” and how the monument would “give a shot in the arm to local economies, like Las Cruces.”

A study cited by Obama, conducted by the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, estimates that a new national monument would “generate $7.4 million in new economic activity each year” and would double the number of visitors “from about 183,900 to approximately 367,800.”  It’s not surprising that Organmountains.org lists 224 local businesses that supported the monument.  Each visitor will spend around $47 on gas, food, lodging, etc. – a low number, because half the visitors are local people who don’t need motel rooms.

It is unlikely that $7.4 million in new economic activity will “grow America’s economy.”  Few foreign tourists will chose an American vacation, because the OMDP is now officially a national monument instead of a recreation area.  Luring American tourists from other parks might give Las Cruces a shot in the arm, but it’s a zero-sum game for the American economy – a redistribution of vacation dollars that might have been spent elsewhere.

Furthermore, doubling the number of visitors might not be the best strategy for preserving pristine wilderness.  Obama describes the visitors’ activities as “hiking or camping or fishing,” but the study above reports that “driving/OHV use” is the most common “primary activity type” (25% of visitors).  Hiking is the primary activity for 15%, and there’s not much fishing in the high desert mountains.  It is fine for tourists flying from around the world to drive through a new national monument, but it’s hypocritical for the carbon Scrooges to celebrate this as a green victory.

None of these three justifications therefore holds much water.  It seems clear that the primary beneficiary of the decision, in Obama’s mind, is his own legacy.  This passage from his speech is telling; as usual, it’s all about him:

The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is the second national monument I’ve designated this year, the 11th overall.  I’ve preserved more than 3 million acres of public lands for future generations.  And I am not finished.

The second national monument Obama refers to, in Point Arena, California, came after the House had unanimously agreed to the designation.  It would have easily passed in the Senate, but Harry Reid delayed the bill so Obama could invoke his executive authority and claim acres preserved for himself.  Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), sponsor of the EPIC Act, summarized the double-dealing: “the House was punked by the president.”

Last week Obama added half a million acres to his scorecard, but his 3 million acres pales next to Bill Clinton’s 27 million.  As Obama warned, “I am not finished.”  And there’s virtually nothing we can do to stop him, short of reining in the Antiquities Act.

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