As a move to cement his environmental legacy in his last few weeks in office, President Barack Obama has designated two national monuments in environmentally sensitive areas of the Western United States. While such actions have been hailed by native American tribes and conservationists, the administration has also come under fire for its approach to the use of public lands in the western part of the country.
One of the monuments, the Bears Ears national monument in Utah, encompasses more than 1.35 million acres of the Four Corners region, near the border of Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. The designation protects lands considered sacred by Native Americans in the area, and includes an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites, such as ancient cliff dwellings.
The other new monument is the 300,000 acre Gold Butte monument near the city of Las Vegas in southern Nevada. This site will protect a picturesque and ecologically threatened area. It includes land where an armed standoff with federal agents, led by rancher Cliven Bundy, ended with his arrest. The area is also known for its rare fossils, artifacts, and rock art.
The Obama administration echoed concerns among conservationists that both sites were in need of protection from looting and vandalism. Obama said in a statement:
“Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes.”
The move is part of a wider effort to protect natural areas in the weeks leading up the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. The administration has also enacted a ban on oil drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans and blocked mining outside Yellowstone National Park. These monuments encompass more acreage than had been created by any prior administration.
However, optimism among supporters has been tempered by the prospect of actions by the incoming Trump administration. Opponent Rob Bishop, a Utah congressman, has argued that National Monuments can be undone, although there is no precedent for such a move.
The Utah monument had been called for by a coalition of Native American tribes, who use the area to perform ceremonies, collect herbs for spiritual use, and to conduct healing rituals.
The president of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, praised the move, saying:
“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness. The rocks, the winds, the land, they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”