Activists May Go Straight to Obama

From Karen Peterson, North Opinion Page Editor, Albuquerque Journal:

Conservation activists seeking to protect a big swath of northern New Mexico from future development say that they may appeal to President Barack Obama rather than waiting for a sharply divided Congress to act.

Bills to protect between 200,000 and 300,000 acres of land on both sides of the Rio Grande south of the Colorado border, including the Rio Grande Gorge, have twice been introduced by members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation in recent years, but none has yet passed.

“We’re still pushing for legislation,” said Nathan Newcomer, associate director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. “But if Congress can’t get anything done, we’d like to see the president use his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives him the authority to act when Congress is unwilling or unable to protect resources.”

The bills sought to designate the area, including San Antonio Mountain west of the Rio Grande and Ute Mountain east of it, as El Rio Grande del Norte Conservation Area, protecting wildlife habitat and putting the area off limits to further development, including oil and gas drilling.

Two new wilderness areas, one for each of the area’s iconic mountains, also were to be created.

Both bills had the support of the state congressional delegation as well as many northern New Mexico constituencies ranging from hunters and anglers to conservationists and outdoor recreationists.

Also in favor of the legislation have been land grant activists, who see the designation as a way to recognize the historical importance of New Mexico’s land grants and enshrine in law traditional community uses of public land like wood and piñon gathering.

In contrast, Newcomer noted, a similar effort to protect Otero Mesa, in the southern part of the state, mainly from oil and gas drilling, has met with some opposition from the surrounding community.

“It’s ridiculous to go through all this when the people in the district support it,” Newcomer said of the northern Rio Grande effort. “But Congress refuses to act.”

The Antiquities Act grants the president the authority to act when Congress is “unwilling or unable to act to protect resources,” Newcomer said.

It has been used by presidents of both parties to create national monuments, including some of the nation’s most famous. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon National Monument — now, of course, a national park — under the act, while Democrat Jimmy Carter used the law to create the Wrangell-St. Elias National Monument in Alaska, which protects almost 11 million acres.

At the end of his second term, President Bill Clinton used the antiquities law to create three new national monuments in Utah and California that became the subject of vociferous Republican criticism. But it was Republican President George W. Bush who used the act to extend federal protections to the largest area, designating 140,000 square miles of ocean and island off Hawaii as a marine national monument.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the state’s senior Democrat in Washington, said activists shouldn’t lose patience with the effort in Congress. The current bill is “very much alive,” Jude McCartin said.

“It doesn’t have any detractors,” she said. “That it isn’t on the fast track shouldn’t concern people — Sen. Bingaman continues to pursue it.”

McCartin also noted that presidential action under the Antiquities Act “tends to be a second-term kind of thing.”

“So far as I know, the president is not now inclined to use the Antiquities Act for that purpose,” she said. “Constituents can petition, but I’m not sure there’s anyone drawing up a list for such a thing.”

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