SAN FRANCISCO — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says she will recommend that President Obama act alone if necessary to create new national monuments and sidestep a gridlocked Congress that has failed to address dozens of public lands bills.
Jewell said the logjam on Capitol Hill has created a conservation backlog, and she warned that the Obama administration would not "hold its breath forever" waiting for lawmakers to act.
"The president will not hesitate," Jewell said in an interview in San Francisco last week. "I can tell you that there are places that are ripe for setting aside, with a tremendous groundswell of public support."
Congress has not added any acreage to the national park or wilderness systems since 2010. Jewell blamed ramped-up rhetoric in Washington for the impasse. She said the appetite for preserving American historic and cultural sites remains high but some officials seek to avoid the appearance of publicly embracing more government protection.
Jewell, who has been on the job scarcely six months, came to California to promote several intiatives and tour a site that could be added to a national monument along the Mendocino coast.
She began with a meet and greet at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. On a bright day with gulls wheeling against a backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge — the velvety green Marin headlands in the distance — Jewell stood in one of the nation's most-visited national parks and made the case for the value of public lands.
Among the public events on Jewell's schedule was a visit to the 1,255-acre Stornetta Public Lands site on the Mendocino County coast, north of Point Arena. Several members of the California congressional delegation have proposed adding the site to the California Coastal National Monument.
It's one of many pending federal bills that would conserve land in California. One bill would expand the boundary of Yosemite National Park, and another would create a national monument in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed sweeping legislation that would add thousands of acres to Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks and the Mojave National Preserve, protect 74 miles of waterways as wild and scenic rivers, designate 248,000 acres as wilderness and create the Sand to Snow National Monument running from the floor of the Coachella Valley to the peak of Mt. San Gorgonio.
The conservation community has a long list of places that it believes require protection, but activists complain that with sequestration budget cuts on top of congressional reluctance to promote conservation, little is getting done.
"It's been nearly impossible to figure out how to get more funding for conservation work, whether it's just getting money to run agencies or getting full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund," said Kristen Brengel, who lobbies Congress for the National Parks Conservation Assn. "There is almost no hope for the wilderness or monuments bills — they are being held up."
Brengel said Jewell's willingness to recommend that Obama act unilaterally, using powers granted to presidents under the Antiquities Act of 1906, gives hope to conservationists who see the administration as indifferent to environmental issues.
"The take-away is she's kind of teed herself up to make those recommendations to the president," Brengel said. "They are capable of making decisions on conservation. They just haven't made many of them."
The Antiquities Act gives presidents authority to name new monuments — a power generally residing with Congress. Presidents going back to Theodore Roosevelt have used the act to set aside natural wonders, including the Grand Canyon in 1908, which was later named a national park against the wishes of local officials.
But use of the act in recent years has sparked strong protest. Most notabley was President Clinton's decision to designate the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in 1996, putting one of the nation's largest coal reserves off limits to mining.
Utah lawmakers, led by then-Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican, bitterly complained that federal authorities failed to consult with local communities before elevating protections on 1.8 million acres of rugged red-rock canyons. Further antagonizing opponents, Clinton signed the act while sitting at a ceremonial desk placed on the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Cinton used the Antiquities Act more than any other president. Obama has used the law to designate nine new monuments, focusing mainly on historic sites such as the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Kern County, which is poised to become a National Historic Park.