For more than a century, presidents have been using the Antiquities Act to save our national treasures, and President Obama's just-announced designation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico shows exactly why this law is so indispensable.
Organ Mountains, moonrise.Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument
At nearly 500,000 acres (making it by far the largest monument that President Obama has designated), Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is packed with history, from archaeological sites to Billy the Kid's Outlaw Rock, to training areas for the Apollo space missions. The canyons and jagged peaks of the region's mountain ranges are both beautiful and unique.
My family and I experienced that beauty firsthand last November when we hiked the Dripping Springs Trail together with many of the folks who've been working for years to gain this protection.
It's estimated that the new monument will attract enough new outdoor recreation and tourism to give a $7.4 million boost to the local economy. No wonder the designation received strong local support across the board—from business owners to elected officials to residents.
As Howard Dash, a member of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Action Team of the Rio Grande Chapter's Southern Group, told me: "In Las Cruces, our team has worked hard for the designation of the national monument. It was through the Sierra Club's support that we were able to focus that effort to make it a reality. Las Cruces will be a better place for it."
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is the eleventh national monument designated by President Obama under the Antiquities Act and, in every instance, his administration has bent over backward to get input from nearby communities and to select places that are rich in both cultural and natural heritage. In other words, the Antiquities Act is being used exactly as intended.
That fact, however, didn't keep the current U.S. House of Representatives (already notorious for being the most anti-conservation in decades) from attempting to snatch failure from the jaws of success. Earlier this year, in a close vote, the House passed a bill that would gut the Antiquities Act.
Obviously, anyone who loves wild places and wants to see them protected, knows that's a terrible idea. Many excellent candidates for national monument protection, such as Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds, Arizona's Grand Canyon Watershed, and Utah's Greater Canyonlands, are still waiting. But the repercussions of losing the Antiquities Act would reverberate beyond the loss of new monuments. Remember when our national parks were closed because of the federal government shutdown? Fourteen of those national parks were reopened with funding from state governments because the states couldn't afford to lose the substantial revenue the parks generated for nearby communities. Of those 14 parks, nine were first protected as national monuments—thanks to the Antiquities Act.
Without the Antiquities Act, it's impossible to say exactly how much poorer our national heritage would be, but there's no question it would be poorer, not just for us, but for every generation that follows. President Obama deserves a lot of credit for using the authority granted to him by the Antiquities Act to protect special places like Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, and for using it exactly the way it is supposed to be used.
Of course, anytime that Congress decides to use its own considerable authority to protect public lands, I'll be the first to stand and applaud. In the past five years, though, that's happened exactly once, which puts the tally at Obama 11, Congress 1. During this 50th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, wouldn't it be nice to see a closer score?
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.