Republicans are convinced that President Barack Obama thinks himself royalty because he named three new national monuments this week. He preserved Brown Canyon in Colorado, the Honouliuli Internment Camp in Hawaii, and Pullman Park District in Chicago for their historical and ecological value.
For Republicans, this is more evidence Obama is acting like a monarch, and they've responded with varying degrees of alarm. Ken Buck, a freshman congressman from Colorado, warned Obama to “cut it out.” “He is not king,” Buck said. “That is not how we do things in the U.S. Actions like this lead the American people to view Mr. Obama’s presidency as an imperial presidency,” the congressman continued. House Natural Resources Committee chair Rob Bishop said Obama “sidelined the American public and bulldozed transparency by proclaiming three new national monuments through executive fiat.” Doug Lamborn, another Colorado congressman, called it a “top-down, big government land grab by the president that disenfranchises the concerned citizens in the Browns Canyon region.”
There was a time protecting public lands wasn't controversial. Of course, that was before Obama became president. Every president has had the power to declare new monuments since 1906 through the Antiquities Act, which gives the holder of the office power to create national monuments managed by the federal government. And both parties have used it: Republican administrations created or expanded 84 national monuments since then, while Democrats named 116, only a few more.
Still, GOP opponents argue Obama is "grabbing" far more lands than Bush Junior. This might be because of Congress. The 112th Congress (2011-2012) was the first since 1964 that failed to set aside a single acre of land. (The Wilderness Act of 1964 formally defined Congress' power to declare lands as wilderness, affording them federal protection.) Until the end of last year, the 113th Congress had an equally dismal record as the one before it. The 113th passed a public lands package of 70 related bills that added 245,000 acres of federally-protected wilderness; that said, it came with a downside, expanding mining in one Arizona national forest.
In fact, Obama has done a poor job of using his executive powers for conservation in the first six years of office. The federal government leased twice as much land for oil and gas drilling as Obama set aside for protection. According to the Sierra Club, Obama protected under 20,000 acres of land in his first term, roughly the same size as his Brown Canyons declaration yesterday. Environmental groups considered it a poor record. Environmentalists also expected his record to change in his final two years of office, a time recent presidents have typically used to cement their legacy through creating land and marine monuments. And that's exactly what Obama is doing.
To date, Obama has protected more than 1,140,000 acres of land through the Antiquities Act, most of it in his second term, according to Matt Lee-Ashley, the Director of Public Lands at the Center for American Progress. He's following precedent. Bill Clinton designated more than 5.6 million acres for protection, while George W. Bush designated far less, at 6,000.
These numbers don’t include marine monuments, which is perhaps the single area where Bush had a strong environmental record. "If Republicans want to point to a federal land grab then they can look to George W. Bush," said Matthew Kirby, Sierra Club's national monuments campaign director. Bush declared five marine monuments, and set aside the largest protected marine area ever (until Obama)—140,000 square miles in Honolulu, Hawaii.
From Bush's time in office to now, Lamborn—the Colorado Republican accusing Obama of disenfranchising his constituents—has changed his tone on the federally protected lands. In 2007, Lamborn advocated for a monument at Pikes Peak in Colorado. At the time, he said nothing about disenfranchising his constituents. He claimed it would "promote tourism." If Obama's acting like a king, so were his predecessors.