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
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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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