Policy: Environment & Energy

Green groups prod Obama to act on conservation

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Environmental groups want President Obama to say he will use his pen to draw a border around lands they feel deserve special protection during his Tuesday State of the Union address.

Those groups are amping up a push aimed at getting Obama to use executive authority to designate national monuments and establish wilderness zones across the country. That would have the effect of blocking oil and gas drilling while preserving those public lands for wildlife, hunters, anglers and other forms of recreation.

"When Congress does not act, we are counting on the president and his administration to set a new standard for protecting and better managing our magnificent natural and cultural legacy," said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society conservation group.

Supporters of such an effort note that last Congress was the first since World War II to not designate a national monument through legislation -- a product of Tea Party groups refusing to roll more land into federal management and also to keep such areas open to potential energy development.

"The Tea Party, the Republican leadership, they are the big holdup here, unfortunately. These bills would pass overwhelmingly if they got on the floor," Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director with the League of Conservation Voters, said in a recent interview. "The president has the authority to go and do that if the Congress isn't acting."

Obama is expected to speak often Tuesday about the authority he can wield from the White House to advance policy while Congress remains gridlocked. And while his proposal on greenhouse gas emissions rules for power plants has garnered the most attention out of Obama's environmental push, green groups are also bullish on the president's ability to use similar powers to promote conservation.

For conservation, that authority is the more than 100-year-old Antiquities Act. Obama has used it sparingly, though his administration appears more keen to lean on it now -- Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in an October speech that the White House would go it alone to protect lands if Congress doesn't.

Republicans, chiefly House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., have questioned the practice. Hastings' main concern has been that the federal government is gobbling up too much land without oversight from Congress and local officials.

The administration has defended its use of the Antiquities Act, which it has done nine times, six since 2012. The administration says it has made the selections carefully, and only after local, grassroots support had been expressed. In each decision, it has cited potential economic benefits from boosting tourism.

More such designations could be in the offing. Jewell visited New Mexico's Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks on Friday at the request of the state's Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who are pushing legislation to name the site a national monument.

"Over the past few years we’ve seen a groundswell of support from many in the community to ensure that these landscapes are celebrated and passed on to the generations of New Mexicans to come. Those efforts also have the potential to drive significant economic benefits to the region through a boost in tourism and outdoor recreation," Jewell said.

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