President Obama announced during his visit to California last week that he was establishing by executive action a national monument, something just short of a national park, across 350,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains in Angeles National Forest.
The sprawling, designated area stripped across the top of Los Angeles County, is a popular hiking destination and home to wondrous landscapes, endangered plants and animals, and the Mount Wilson Observatory. More than 17 million people are within a short drive of it.
So, what's not to love?
Critics say establishing the park will impede development in the area, reduce local authority, cost the government money, establish more bureaucracy and further evidence Obama’s insatiable appetite for power and disdain for Congress and the “People.” There is also a fear, expressed by Mt. Baldy resident Tracy Sulkin to the Los Angeles Times, that, “The environmentalists won’t stop until the mountains are off-limits to humans.”
Online conservative websites lit up with complaints. “The damage this tyrant is causing America is incalculable.” “Obama to publicly name The United States a national monument and everyone will have to move to a new country.” “Why didn’t Obama at least wait until after the elections to announce this unconstitutional project?”
Presidents have named 110 national monuments, although not all of them retain the designation to this day. This is the 13th named by President Obama.
Republican Teddy Roosevelt established the first national monument in 1906, the Devils Tower in Wyoming, after Congress passed the Antiquities Act. A Congress too divided to pass big national park legislation authorized the president to address smaller projects in need of immediate attention by letting him name “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments.
Roosevelt arguably abused some of the acreage limitations in his choices, but subsequent presidents of both parties have been aggressive in using the act, sometimes with the hope of establishing a de facto national park without Congressional approval. Protection of the Grand Canyon began as a 1908 Roosevelt executive order establishing it as a national monument.
President Clinton created the most national monuments, 19, but 16 presidents have gotten in on the action. Only Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush have not. There are national monuments in 28 states. The loose language of the law allowed President Carter to establish 17 national monuments in Alaska, totaling 56 million acres.
Republicans tried to curtail Obama’s power to establish national monuments in March when they passed H.R. 1459 along party lines. The Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act would have ensured that Obama wouldn’t be able to name any more monuments by requiring environmental and economic studies and input from local citizens who might be affected. The president could make only one designation per state per four-year term. It died in a Senate committee.
Some critics of the San Gabriel Mountains national monument argued that the issue had not received a proper public hearing and that Congress should be involved in shaping the conservation effort.
Congress was first presented with a bill to preserve the San Gabriel Mountains in 2003 by Los Angeles County supervisor-elect Hilda Solis, who was then a Democratic member of the House. It kicked around for nearly a decade. After congressional hearings in 2011 and 2012, the public submitted 12,000 comments.
U.S. Representative Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) introduced a version of the bill in June. But Congress did what Congress does to just about any legislation that might make President Obama look good—they canned it.
Chu introduced H.R. 4858 in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where it was assigned to the Natural Resource Committee's Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation. GovTrack.us gave it a 4% chance of being enacted and it died there of neglect.