President Obama was a remarkable conservation champion. Let’s thank him.
By Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society
America’s wildlands serve us in so many ways. Whether we’re standing in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon, hiking a trail at a nearby park or drinking clean water that percolated through a protected forest, we have many ways to appreciate our shared natural heritage.
How we honor and protect that natural heritage speaks volumes about us. Now is a good time to assess our progress on that responsibility.
Even a cursory look at President Obama’s years in office tells a remarkable story about his stewardship of our nation’s lands and waters. As president, Obama has not only protected more land and water than any president throughout American history, he has also defended the nation from a growing and frightening array of threats to the environment.
The sweep of Obama’s actions on large-scale conservation, addressing the threat of climate change and overdue energy reforms on public lands are simply unprecedented. In fact, for those of us who work on conservation efforts daily, it’s hard to fathom how far behind we would be as a nation if we had not achieved the progress we have gained under Obama’s steady leadership.
No doubt, President Obama has had able allies in citizen supporters, conservation coalitions and many elected officials throughout the U.S. But the fact remains, his work as a conservation leader and willing partner has been a distinct and historic blessing for the nation. For this, we owe him our gratitude.
Obama has not only protected more land and water than any president throughout American history, he has also defended the nation from a growing and frightening array of threats to the environment.
VIDEO: President Obama’s conservation legacy
Protecting America’s Most Treasured Places
Millions of acres of wilderness gained protection under President Obama in many regions, from the Boulder White Clouds in Idaho and the Rocky Mount Front in Montana, to Hermosa Creek in Colorado and Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, among other wildlands.
Other measures to protect land have resulted in larger connected wild areas, such as the Katahdin National Monument in Maine. Expanding and connecting wildlands will help make them more resilient in the face of climate change and continuing habitat fragmentation. In fact, President Obama has established or expanded more national monuments, twenty-nine, than any president in history.
Historic Advances to Address Climate Change
President Obama is the first president to take on climate change as a core mission with unflinching resolve, as a policy leader at home and as a world leader. Most significant was his leadership on the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. His was the first administration to own up to the climate consequences of energy development on our public lands.
He has reformed and improved rules for energy extraction on our public lands, reducing the impacts of energy development to our lands and waters. He protected lands that are too wild to drill in Alaska, the Arctic Ocean, the Thompson Divide in Colorado, the Badger-Two Medicine region in Montana, the Wyoming Range and in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia.
The President also made remarkable progress in promoting renewable energy on our public lands with new policies for wind and solar energy. Achievements like the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in California created a pathway for responsible renewable energy development while protecting 2.8 million acres of key wildlife habitat.
The sweep of Obama’s actions on large-scale conservation, addressing the threat of climate change and overdue energy reforms on public lands are simply unprecedented.
Honoring America’s Rich Cultural Heritage
Obama’s conservation efforts have also honored the cultural history of Americans from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds, including African American, Hispanic, Asian, women and members of the LGBT community. He established the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland, the Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, Charles M. Young Buffalo Soldiers in Ohio and the Pullman National Monument in Chicago.
Under his watch, national monument status was established to honor Belmont-Paul House and Women’s Equality in Washington, D.C., the Honouliuli internment camp in Hawaii, Cesar Chavez in California and the Stonewall Monument in New York, commemorating the LGBT civil rights movement.
Obama also protected areas that preserve historic Native American sites, petroglyphs and other cultural treasures in the Southwest. These monuments more fully tell the richness of America’s story.
Benefits for Local Communities
These national monuments also have special significance to local people who have been collaborating and campaigning for years to see them protected. The designation of the San Gabriel National Monument in Southern California, for instance, responded to local desires to ensure urban and Latino communities in the Los Angeles region will always have a nearby place to hike and enjoy nature.
The designation of the Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado met local requests to preserve unique lands along the Arkansas River, boosting southern Colorado’s recreation economy and ensuring the river remains full of natural splendor for the thousands of rafters who visit each year.
As President Obama has said, “It’s about working with communities to open up our glorious heritage to everybody.”
Helping All Americans Enjoy the Great Outdoors
Not only did President Obama designate new monuments that tell America’ story, he helped ensure that Americans from all backgrounds are able to participate in the places that make those stories come to life.
Obama’s Every Kid in a Park initiative allows all 4th graders and their families entrance to our national parks and public lands for free, making it easier for low-income kids to know their natural heritage. The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps put thousands of young people and veterans, including low-income and disadvantaged youth to work restoring and enhancing wildlands.
The work to include more Americans in wilderness matters, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because the future of conservation depends on passing a love for wildlands down to future generations of Americans.
What happens to much of Obama’s legacy in the Trump administration remains to be seen. Some pro-development members of Congress are already working on an effort to convince president-elect Trump to roll back some of Obama’s progress. Those same members of Congress have been fighting to undermine conservation laws for years.
The Wilderness Society is ready to fight for the progress we have made on conservation and climate change over the past eight years. We’ll also defend the Antiquities Act, Land and Water Conservation Fund and other bedrock conservation laws.
In the meantime, as President Obama prepares to leave office, he has my sincere gratitude for all he’s done to preserve our shared natural heritage. He has inspired many to join this mission of conservation that must be passed along to future generations.