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Our Democratic National Parks

September 8, 2013

Land conservation sets the United States above almost every other country in the world. We have some 6,700 federally protected lands and sites, accounting for 27 percent of the country’s land mass. With less than two percent of the world’s land, the United States accounts for more than 10 percent of the world’s protected land area.

Most of our federally protected lands are administered by the National Parks Service, a division of the Department of the Interior. But others are administered by federal agencies from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Defense. Some are administered jointly with states or non-profit organizations.

The crown jewels of our protected lands are our 59 national parks, from Acadia to Zion – not because they are the most rigorously protected, but because they are relatively few, visually varied and spectacular, well known, and heavily visited.

Another important category of protected lands is the national monuments, because national monuments can be created by presidential edict, whereas other types of protection can only be created by acts of Congress. The criteria are different for national parks and national monuments, but presidents have often designated national monuments based on the criterion that they were unable to get Congress to legislate their protection.

With some justification, federal land conservation is historically associated with progressive Republicans, foremost among them Theodore Roosevelt. But the fact is that modern Republicans resist land conservation much more than Democrats do. Republican resistance has worsened in the days of the Tea Party, but Republican resistance to land conservation is hardly new.

Our first eight national parks were created under Republican presidents from Ulysses Grant to William Howard Taft. Before the Depression, Woodrow Wilson was the only Democrat to preside over the designation of a national park, but he did so with a vengeance – Wilson created nine of our existing national parks, one more than all of his predecessors combined.

After the Depression, the presidents who created the most new national parks were all Democrats Jimmy Carter (11), Franklin Roosevelt (6), Bill Clinton (5), and Lyndon Johnson (4). Of the 37 parks created after FDR became president, only nine were created by Republican presidents.

From the beginning, most national parks have been in the west. Counting American Samoa and Hawaii in the west and the Virgin Islands in the east, only 12 national parks are east of the Mississippi River. California has nine national parks, Alaska has eight (including the four largest), Utah has five, and Colorado has four. East of the Mississippi, only Florida has more than one national park – Florida has three.

Also from the beginning, national park designations have been opposed by interests that do not like restrictions on land use. Sometimes commercial and industrial interests have gained exemptions from those restrictions, and sometimes those interests have just evaded those restrictions. Mining and ranching are two of the bigger businesses to make use of national parks over the years.

Nineteenth century westerners often resisted land protection as anti-development; designation of national parks would forever stifle the economies of nearby towns, they said – failing to foresee the economic booms that tourism would bring with the rising American middle class after World War II. But even after those tourist booms became apparent, mining and ranching interests continued to oppose land protection legislation. This is a large part of the explanation for the use of national monument designations.

President Carter was something of an environmentalist for his time. He faced heavy resistance from western legislators to federal land protection, especially because the Carter administration was not as friendly to commercial exploitation of federally protected land as previous administrations had been. Carter presided over the designation of five national parks, but he designated 20 national monuments – more than any other president, and especially remarkable because Carter served only one term. (Second place for national monuments goes to FDR, who designated 11 national monuments in 12 years.)

If land protection was once regarded as anti-development, anti-western, anti-mining and anti-ranching, land protection is regarded by Tea Partiers today as anti-freedom. Hence President Obama has been able to designate only one new national park – Pinnacles National Park in California. Pinnacles had already been protected for more than 100 years as a national monument designated by Theodore Roosevelt.

On the other hand, Obama has designated 10 new national monuments, putting him third on that list after Carter and FDR. Like Carter, Obama has met with legislative resistance, although one suspects that the motivations of the anti-Carter resistance and the anti-Obama resistance are not necessarily the same.

The difficulty of obtaining Congressional approval for federal land conservation is highlighted by an interesting fact:  Bill Clinton designated seven national monuments in the last days of his administration; George W. Bush designated three in the last days of his. Obama doesn’t strike me as likely to issue spates of executive orders in January 2017, but even Obama’s patience with obstruction must have limits.

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From → All Posts, Obama 2.0

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