What will happen to Obama conservation efforts under Trump?

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Park Service at Yosemite National Park, California, U.S., June 18, 2016.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RTX2GYBQ

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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But, first, we begin our series on the legacy of President Obama’s time in office.

Our series is called The Obama Years. And over the next two weeks, we will examine the successes, review his administration’s failures, and highlight the battles that will continue during president-elect Trump’s tenure.

Tonight, we start with President Obama’s legacy on conservation.

In his eight years in office, President Obama has permanently banned oil and gas drilling on hundreds of millions of acres of federally owned land in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. He’s canceled oil and gas leases on land owned by the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. He’s also used his executive power 29 times to create new national monuments, protecting more than 553 million acres of water and land. That’s more than the last 18 presidents combined.

In August, he more than quadrupled the existing marine national monument in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, creating the largest protected area on Earth.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nature is actually resilient, if we take care to just stop actively destroying it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Last week, the president set aside two new national monuments, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada.

Environmentalists and Native American groups love the move, but critics have called it an egregious and arrogant federal land grab. With a new Republican Congress and administration coming in just a few weeks, there are questions about whether these efforts might be rolled back.

Last week, I talked with The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin about Obama’s legacy. And I began by asking her about the significance of these two most recent monuments.

JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: They’re both, for slightly different reasons.

Gold Butte is an area. It’s roughly 300,000 acres, just about an hour’s drive from Las Vegas. And it’s got incredible petrified sand dunes, rock art. It’s a very important habitat for the imperiled desert tortoise.

And while it’s this area where people go to hike and enjoy, it’s also right at the heart of where Cliven Bundy and his family live. This is a family that’s been at odds with the federal government for years.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: This is the family that was involved in the standoff in 2014 in Nevada and then the other in Oregon.

JULIET EILPERIN: Exactly, and then also the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

And so they have failed to recognize federal authority for over — well over a decade. They have been illegally grazing there. And so their property is right adjacent to this area that was declared a national monument. So it’s quite an interesting area for that reason.

Bears Ears, in southeastern Utah, which is a larger parcel of land we’re talking about, 1.35 million acres, is an incredibly important ancestral Pueblo site. And so…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: A Native American site.

JULIET EILPERIN: So, it’s a Native American site where there are many tribes, some of whom live near there and some of whom have actually moved to other areas, who consider it an incredibly important and significant place.

People still go there to collect firewood and collect herbs for ceremonies. They see it — it has been a literal refuge over the years, as well as obviously kind of a spiritual refuge. And so that’s very important.

But there are real divisions there. While a lot of people think it should be protected, there are real questions about, again, the role of the federal government.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, these both are considered two of the more controversial of Obama’s designations, right?

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

Essentially, he spent many years doing ones that — where there was broad consensus on the ground, where there was very little controversy. And we have seen, as he gets towards the end of his term, he’s been making slightly riskier designations.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: With regards to the criticism, particularly in Utah, there was a lot of blowback there. Orrin Hatch, both of the senators, it seems like every elected official in Utah was against this.

JULIET EILPERIN: Right.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What about the criticisms that they have? What are they arguing that Obama shouldn’t have done?

JULIET EILPERIN: What they were arguing wasn’t that this area didn’t deserve protection, but that they felt that the president shouldn’t do it unilaterally.

Lawmakers there had been working for over three years to draft legislation that would have included that area, as with well as six other counties, where they were trying to do a mix of development and protection, give some lands to the state that they could use, some lands would go to the federal government.

And so they were looking for a broader land compromise. That bill stalled in the House and didn’t pass, and that’s why the White House argued it had the right to, at this point, move on its own.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: President Obama used this fairly old act, the Antiquities Act, to designate these. Are these on pretty good legal footing going forward?

JULIET EILPERIN: Yes.

One of the things that’s really interesting about this act that dates back to 1906 is that it’s fairly broadly worded and that you have had presidents from both parties use it frequently and to protect areas. And when — usually, it has stood up to challenges in court, that basically the presidents are given broad latitude to exercise the authority.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, is there any sense, though, that if the Trump administration comes in — and there’s a lot of very pro-drilling interests in the potential Cabinet of the Trump administration — is there any way that they could carve these back?

JULIET EILPERIN: They could.

So, one thing that would be very straightforward, where there is really no legal controversy, is that Congress could pass a bill reversing these moves. And if the president signed it, that would effectively end — kill off the monuments. So, that could be done.

What Republicans are asking President Trump to do is do it on his own. That has never been done. Presidents have on occasion altered the boundaries. In one case, Woodrow Wilson cut a monument that Teddy Roosevelt created in half. But there is kind of no court precedent for what would happen if a president on his own reversed it.

There is a legal opinion dating to 1938 which says the president can’t do it, but that’s not been tested in court.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: More broadly, how do you see these particular designations fitting into Obama’s overall conservation legacy?

JULIET EILPERIN: I think they are very interesting and significant for a couple of reasons.

The first is that the president has tried to broaden the definition of what is American history and what is our heritage. And so he really has focused on recognizing areas that, for example, recognize everything from black history, to LGBT history, women’s history, and Native American history.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In designating national parks?

JULIET EILPERIN: Yes, and highlighting it as part of the Park Service.

And these two are a mix, but, primarily, they’re a land management land, but basically trying to say, this is all of our history and this is part of what it means to be American.

So, in many ways, that’s what’s most important. In other senses, it does connect to his more — his legacy, because he’s talked about climate change. When they were describing this monument, White House officials talked about, this will create resiliency to climate impacts, corridors for wildlife.

So, there are other reasons why it matters. And he’s really come to focus more on public lands and public waters in his second term. While he’s done climate change from the beginning, this was not as much of a priority in his first term.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I know that not all conservationists think that Obama gets an A-plus. How do you think his legacy is going to be measured by history?

JULIET EILPERIN: Right.

Of course, on one level, we certainly do need to see whether things get reversed over time. And that applies whether you’re talking about some of his climate policies regarding power plants, or whether you’re talking about this.

I think there is no question that he is one of the most consequential presidents when it comes to the environment. He has really made it a centerpiece of his domestic policy and even his foreign policy.

And so I think that, when people look back, they will see that he really focused on this intently, particularly as he saw his term coming to a close.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There is only a couple more weeks left. Do you think he’s done designating lands?

JULIET EILPERIN: I don’t think he’s done yet.

There are a few different ones they’re looking at. They’re looking at expanding a couple existing monuments that were created earlier, including the California Coastal National Monument, as well as the Cascade-Siskiyou Monument in Oregon.

And there are certainly, if I had to lay bets there, a couple of historic monuments they’re looking at, including one that would highlight civil rights history in — two in Alabama that would speak to that. There’s also a long-shot one in South Carolina addressing Reconstruction.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, thank you so much.

JULIET EILPERIN: Thanks so much, William.

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