UPDATE: On August 25, 2016, President Obama proclaimed an expansion to the Papahanāumokuakea Marine National Monument of approximately 442,781 square miles. The acreage of federal public lands proclaimed by U.S. presidents as national monuments now exceed one billion acres (1,078,625,797.02 if you are keeping score). I will revise this blog after Obama leaves office, as I'm sure he's not done.
As presidents near leaving office, more of their thoughts turn to legacy. How will history remember them? Though the history of conservation is but a fraction of the history of the nation, let alone the world, it matters to most presidents. Congress has empowered a president to be able to do great good for the conservation of nature and history for this and future generations.
In 1906, Congress enacted into law the Antiquities Act, giving the President authority to:
declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government to be national monuments.
Since 1906, most, but not all, presidents have issued a total of 241 proclamations pursuant to the act. As of this writing, a total of 703,260,263 acres (~1.1 million square miles) have been so protected for this and future generations. While 59% of this total acreage was proclaimed by Democratic presidents, it’s not quite as bipartisan over time as the totals might suggest..
National monuments have been presidentially proclaimed in 38 states and territories. (Congress has also legislatively established national monuments, but they are not addressed here.)
Though in the past, a few presidents have un-proclaimed national monuments, that’s illegal under the Antiquities Act. Congress granted the president the power to proclaim national monuments, but not the power to un-proclaim them. That power stayed with Congress.
The table below give a ranking (great, good, mediocre, bad and ugly) to each President who has had authority to proclaim national monuments.
Alas, President Obama gets an asterisk, as 214,470 acres within his proclaimed national monuments were already established as Wilderness areas by Congress. Establishing a national monument atop a protected wilderness does nothing to elevate the conservation status of the land designated as wilderness.
Though Obama leads over all in terms of acreage protected, a great deal of the acreage is oceanic. While important for conservation, these marine national monuments surround US territories where residents cannot vote for President. They entail zero political risk.
President Carter designated nearly 56 million acres, and President Clinton over six million acres of terrestrial national monuments, in states where residents can vote for President. As of of this writing, the current president trails with nearly four million acres of terrestrial national monuments. However, there is plenty of time and opportunities to surpass Clinton and even Carter!