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Policy: Environment & Energy

Interior chief Sally Jewell says Obama will go around Congress on national monuments

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Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell vowed that President Obama would use executive authority to create more national monuments to protect lands if Congress doesn't pass legislation to do so.

"If Congress doesn't step up to act," Jewell said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, "then the president will take action."

Obama has used the more than century-old Antiquities Act to establish national monuments nine times, with six coming in the last year. The administration has said it would use the law only if local communities can demonstrate there is significant support for such action.

Those moves have invited backlash from House Republicans, contending those decisions are best left to Congress.

Congress hasn't approved a new national monument or park since 2010, with Republicans charging that the White House is keeping too much federal land off limits to oil and gas development.

Republicans say the shale energy boom could be replicated on federal lands, enhancing energy security and bringing more revenue to the Treasury.

The administration, however, notes that most shale plays are located on state and private lands outside of its control.

Jewell touched on that dynamic in her speech, referring to the Bakken shale formation that is the heart of the U.S. energy boom.

The Bakken nestles up against Theodore Roosevelt National Park along North Dakota's western border with Montana, providing an example of where conservation and development have the potential to clash, Jewell noted.

Emboldened by public cries to reopen the national parks during the federal government shutdown earlier this month, Jewell also called for stronger congressional support for national parks and federal lands.

She said the 16-day shutdown "clarified" the importance of parks, adding it cost communities near national parks an estimated $76 million per day.

The shutdown helped "shine the spotlight on just how much Americans love their public lands and the people that serve them," Jewell said.

But parks funding has been under attack by budget-conscious conservatives and lawmakers who want to expand drilling on federal lands.

On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., released a study showing that the National Park Service has been spending money unnecessarily while it says it can't afford to pay for a massive backlog of maintenance project at the national parks. Trails at the Grand Canyon are in disrepair, and water at Yellowstone is pouring out of old pipes, for example.

Still, Jewell argued drilling coveted by Republicans and some centrist Democrats could coexist with conservation, issuing an order Thursday that aims to strike a "balance" between the two.

The move calls for a department-wide strategy to mitigate environmental conflict arising from resource development, which she said would help preserve federal lands while shielding businesses from potentially damaging environmental conflicts.

"Under my leadership at Interior, we will always take the long view. And we will always, always keep in mind that public lands are a trust, one that we manage for generations to come," Jewell said.

The plan calls for identifying environmental issues during the permitting process, while also establishing plans for land restoration and adaptation.

She promoted the development policy she rolled out Thursday as a way to minimize backlash and lawsuits against businesses for potential environmental damage.

"Project proponents will be able to invest with certainty and clarity in their projects and support the region's environmental needs rather than ad-hoc, project-by-project mitigation efforts," she said.

Jewell said there's room for Republicans to support conservation, calling national parks an "economic engine" for the communities.

She implored Congress to maintain funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund — which uses revenues from offshore oil and gas development to enhance parks and open spaces.

President Obama recommended making that $900 million authorization permanent in his fiscal 2014 budget. But House Republicans pushed and passed an Interior budget that zeroes out that fund.

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