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CREATE | New Possibilities

What's missing from his agenda: a lands legacy

By Michael Brune

Photo by Lori Eanes

If you could be president of the United States for one day, what would you do? I'd probably want to sneak in some batting practice at Yankee Stadium, quickly, because even for the most powerful person in the world, a single day isn't a lot of time to -- as the late Steve Jobs put it -- "make a dent in the universe."

The president, however, has a unique power. When Congress passed the Antiquities Act 106 years ago, it gave the commander in chief sole authority to designate public land as a national monument. Many of our most treasured wild places were first protected in this way, from Muir Woods to Joshua Tree to the Grand Canyon, which Teddy Roosevelt designated as a national monument in 1908.

How many millions of people have been inspired by what is now Grand Canyon National Park? My own first view of it was during a family trip out west when I was 14 years old; I still remember walking to the rim and being awestruck. The next day, we hiked to the bottom and my life was changed.

The president has a unique power to designate public land as a national monument. Go wild, Mr. President!

Last November, President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to protect Virginia’s Fort Monroe, an important and symbolic Civil War site. It was an admirable first choice, but so far it has been his only choice. If I were president for a day, before trying to hit C.C. Sabathia's fastball, I'd take the opportunity to protect America’s best wild places, starting with these three:

Berryessa-Snow Mountain
Northern California’s inner coast ranges provide critical habitat for so many species that Conservation International considers them a "biodiversity hotspot." The nearly half million acres between Lake Berryessa and Snow Mountain are one of the largest tracts of relatively undisturbed public lands in the state and provide an invaluable north-south corridor for wildlife, particularly in the face of climate disruption. My wife, Mary, and I hiked there with our infant daughter, Olivia, a few years ago. Olivia's grandkids deserve the right to do the same.

Otero Mesa
South of Alamogordo, New Mexico, is the largest and wildest expanse of desert grasslands left on U.S. public lands. Otero Mesa’s million-plus acres shelter a thousand species of wildlife, including the only genetically pure herd of pronghorn antelope in the state. So far, a coalition of national, regional, and local groups has largely managed to keep the oil, natural gas, and mining industries at bay. But a national monument designation would permanently protect these unique grasslands.

Arctic Refuge
The 1.5 million acres of coastal plain in the Arctic Refuge are truly one of America's last completely wild places. The vast grasslands support large populations of wildlife, including the Porcupine River caribou herd, three species of bears (the coastal plain is the largest polar bear denning area in the country), and millions of migratory birds. In addition, the area is sacred to Alaska's Gwich'in people, who depend on the Porcupine River caribou herd much as Great Plains Native Americans depended on bison.

There are many other deserving candidates -- the Sierra Club's Presidential Lands Legacy project has a long list. In fact, as this issue of Sierra goes to press, the Obama administration has announced a 20-year ban on new mining on a million acres of public land near the Grand Canyon. When that 20 years is up, this region will still be priceless. Why not go a step further by designating areas around the North Kaibab Plateau as a new Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument? It would be a boon to local communities, because in addition to protecting natural systems, national monuments sustain property values, attract new investment, and provide jobs.
That's what I'd do in my 24 hours as president. Not bad for one day's work. Think how big of a dent Obama could make in a year. Go wild, Mr. President, and show us what you can do!

Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club. You can e-mail him at and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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