Sorry, Congress. On Seal Conservation, Obama Goes it Alone.

Elephant seals are seen on the Piedras Blancas' beach, near Carmel, California, 25 December 2006.
National Journal
Clare Foran
Add to Briefcase
Clare Foran
March 11, 2014, 10:39 a.m.

When Pres­id­ent Obama told Con­gress he was go­ing to use his “phone and pen” to push policy without law­makers’ per­mis­sion, seal and seabird con­ser­va­tion prob­ably didn’t top his agenda.

Nev­er­the­less, Obama on Tues­day uni­lat­er­ally ex­pan­ded a na­tion­al monu­ment in North­ern Cali­for­nia, adding new pro­tec­tions for thou­sands of acres of Pa­cific coast­line. The newly pro­tec­ted land, which is about 100 miles up the coast from San Fran­cisco, is part of the Point Arena pub­lic lands — a swath of coast­line that provides hab­it­at for a string of threatened creatures, in­clud­ing an en­dangered beaver spe­cies and the Cali­for­nia red-legged frog.

It’s also a mar­ine-mam­mal bon­anza, ac­cord­ing to the White House, which billed it as home to “har­bor seals, Steller sea lions, and an oc­ca­sion­al ele­phant seal.”

But though seal hab­it­at is hardly a hot top­ic in the end­less Belt­way battles, Obama’s monu­ment des­ig­na­tion nev­er­the­less found its way in­to the on­go­ing power struggle between the pres­id­ent and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans.

To ex­pand the monu­ment, Obama used the An­tiquit­ies Act, a cen­tury-old stat­ute that al­lows the pres­id­ent to cre­ate na­tion­al monu­ments by use of ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion. Obama has now used that au­thor­ity to make 10 such des­ig­na­tions. Without it, cre­at­ing monu­ments would re­quire an act of Con­gress.

Doc Hast­ings, the Wash­ing­ton Re­pub­lic­an atop the House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee, ripped the pres­id­ent for go­ing it alone. The House passed le­gis­la­tion to ex­pand the Cali­for­nia monu­ment in Ju­ly, and Hast­ings said Obama should have waited for — or de­man­ded that — the Sen­ate take ac­tion on its own ver­sion of the bill.

“In­stead of us­ing im­per­i­al powers, the pres­id­ent should pick up the phone and call upon Sen­ate Demo­crats to take ac­tion,” Hast­ings said in a state­ment. “There is no in­her­ent danger to this area of com­pel­ling reas­on for the pres­id­ent to take uni­lat­er­al ac­tion now. The Sen­ate simply needs to do their job and pass the bill.”

More broadly, however, con­gres­sion­al im­passe has kept con­ser­va­tion des­ig­na­tions at a stand­still. The 112th Con­gress was the first in more than four dec­ades not to pass le­gis­la­tion des­ig­nat­ing a single new acre of wil­der­ness.

Demo­crats and en­vir­on­ment­al groups have tra­di­tion­ally pushed such des­ig­na­tions. Re­pub­lic­ans have been gen­er­ally wary of them, as they’ve been hes­it­ant to put re­stric­tions on en­ergy de­vel­op­ment and fre­quently de­man­ded such des­ig­na­tion have near-un­an­im­ous loc­al sup­port.

That grid­lock, however, may be crack­ing, if only slightly: The House last week voted to grant wil­der­ness pro­tec­tion for sev­er­al thou­sand acres of Michigan shoreline. The Sen­ate had already ap­proved the meas­ure, and — with a soon-to-be-is­sued sig­na­ture from Obama — it will mark the 113th Con­gress’s first suc­cess­ful land-con­ser­va­tion des­ig­na­tion.

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