President Obama declared five new national monuments yesterday, bringing the total number he’s created or expanded to 34 — the highest ever, according to The Washington Post. That’s two more than the previous record-holder, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Three of the new national monuments are civil rights sites in the South that have bipartisan support, and underline Obama’s push for protecting sites that speak for the nation’s diverse history and culture. Two monuments in Alabama and one in Beaufort County, South Carolina, commemorate moments of African-American history, including the Reconstruction Era and the violent clash between segregationists and civil rights activists in the 1960s.
These latest designations come just over a week before Obama leaves office — a last-minute effort to set aside swaths of public land with historic, cultural, and ecological importance. Just last month, he created two new controversial national monuments in Utah and Nevada, ensuring protection for more than 1 million acres of land. It’s unclear what authority President-elect Donald Trump will have to remove the designated areas once he’s sworn in, or whether Congress will step in to undo Obama’s work.
In a push to cement his environmental legacy, Obama also expanded two existing national monuments in California and Oregon to protect critical biodiversity and wildlife habitat. He added 6,230 acres to the California Coastal National Monument, which was first created by President Bill Clinton in 2000, and more than 47,000 acres to another Clinton monument, the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which spans through Oregon and California.
The addition to the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument was suggested by two scientific reports, as well as legislation introduced in the Senate in 2015, and is meant to increase the area’s resilience to climate change and protect the habitat of nearly 200 bird species, according to the White House. The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument’s expansion will mean that key areas along waterways will be restricted from cattle grazing and timber production. That’s drawn criticism from ranchers, according to The Washington Post.
Jerome Rosa, executive director of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, told The Washington Post that local ranchers will be hurt by the new designation, and said that Obama is abusing his authority to cement his environmental legacy. “The Antiquities Act really needs to be reformed,” Rosa said. “Hopefully President Trump will do something about that. This thing has been abused by so many presidents.”
But whether the president-elect will attempt to abolish any of the national monuments designated or expanded by Obama is unclear. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives US presidents the authority to set aside swaths of public land to protect important historic, cultural, and ecological sites without approval from Congress; under the law, protections to national monuments vary but can include restricting livestock grazing and energy development.
The Antiquities Act doesn’t explicitly prohibit presidents from abolishing monuments, but a 1938 opinion by the US attorney general concluded that presidents have no such power, according to John Leshy, a former Interior solicitor who now teaches at the University of California Hastings College of Law. Though some presidents have shrunk monuments before, no monuments have been abolished altogether, so there’s no precedence for this, Kevin Book, the managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, tells The Verge. Congress, however, has the power to do that by passing new legislation.
“Even if executive authority isn’t sufficient to overturn the Antiquities Act,” Book says, “Congressional authority is.”
Whether that’s likely to happen, though, is anyone’s guess. The Antiquities Act has been pretty successful throughout history for setting aside many of America’s most beloved places, like the Grand Canyon, Leshy wrote in an email to The Verge. So if Congress changed the law to abolish some existing national monuments, they could receive a huge public backlash. If people speak up, it’s likely that Obama’s legacy for protecting important environmental and cultural sites will stay untouched.
“I still cling to a belief, perhaps naive, that America loves its splendid landscapes and special places and will rise up in their defense,” Leshy says.