The United States is home to some of the most stunning and unique natural areas in the world, including 397 national parks, 101 national monuments, and 556 national wildlife refuges. But many more public lands—managed by the federal government and owned by all Americans—are worthy of protection for future generations. This Earth Day it’s worth thinking about the places that have strong local coalitions calling for protection that should be granted this year.
The road to protection could be a long one, though. Due to partisan gridlock Congress has not sent the president a single piece of land-designation legislation since March 30, 2009, when President Barack Obama signed into law a bill protecting 2 million acres of wilderness and 1,000 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers from development. Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced more than 20 wilderness bills in the 112th Congress, but not only has a single one not passed, none has even come up for a vote.
President Obama has slowly begun building his conservation legacy by establishing a national monument at Fort Monroe and protecting the Grand Canyon from new uranium mines. But he has the authority to do much more.
Here are the top five places that have both local community and political support, and are therefore good candidates for protection during the remainder of this calendar year:
Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico
Located on the very southern edge of New Mexico outside of Las Cruces in Doña Ana County, the Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks are iconic symbols of the state and its diverse heritage. Covering more than 400,000 acres, the area consists of rugged and wild mountains, high grasslands, black lava fields, wildlife habitat, and Spanish and Native American cultural sites.
The Organ Mountains could be protected in a number of ways. The fastest and surest way would be for President Obama to use his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate the area as a new national monument. Congress also has taken steps to protect them: Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) sponsored the Organ Mountains-Doña Ana County Conservation and Protection Act (S. 1024), and even right-wing Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) has shown his support for the area by introducing the Organ Mountains National Monument Establishment Act (H.R. 4334).
No matter how it happens, protecting the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks would be a significant homage to the people and history of New Mexico during the state’s centennial anniversary this year.
Crown of the Continent in Montana
Spanning 16,000 square miles across northwest and central Montana, the Crown of the Continent is one of the most unsurpassed mountain regions in the world and a testament to the success of large-scale, public-private partnerships. Protecting it is key to linking a vast ecosystem that spans from Canada to Yellowstone. This area consists of the newly expanded Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Area, the wild North Fork of the Flathead River, and a plethora of mountains and valleys.
Over the next year and beyond, many federal agencies will work to expand and protect the proposed Crown of the Continent Conservation Area. Because approximately 40 percent of the area is public land, partnerships with private entities are essential. This year’s efforts will focus on the acquisition of conservation easements, which are land-preservation agreements between willing local landowners and the federal government or land trusts. The result will be the continued protection of this impressive yet fragmented wild place.
Fort Ord in California
Fort Ord on Monterey Bay, California, is a former army base that was home to more than 1.5 million U.S. soldiers. In operation from World War I until the end of the Cold War, it was closed in 1994 as part of the Army’s Base Realignment and Closure process. Since then 7,000 of its acres have been managed by the Bureau of Land Management for conservation, wildlife habitat, and recreation. More than 86 miles of trails on the site have made it a world-class mountain biking destination. A wide variety of stakeholders have voiced support for protecting Fort Ord including the Vet Voice Foundation, the International Mountain Bicycling Association, local veterans, and nearby businesses.
No bills have been introduced to protect Fort Ord in Congress, so the only route for its protection would be for President Obama to declare it a national monument under the Antiquities Act. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited the site in January and expressed support for a national monument, and veterans have asked that if designated, the monument be known as the Fort Ord Soldiers National Monument.
Alpine Lakes in Washington
The Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area is located in the Cascades mountain range in Washington. It is part of the Wenatchee and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests. Its nearly 400,000 acres are home to more than 700 mountain lakes formed by glaciers, wet temperate forests, vast meadows, and jagged peaks. Due to its proximity to Seattle and Portland, Alpine Lakes is one of the most popular outdoor spots in the state and one of the most visited wilderness areas in the nation.
An opportunity exists this year to expand the existing area by 22,000 acres. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Dave Reichert (R-WA) have introduced bipartisan legislation to protect adjacent areas and add 40 miles of local rivers to the national Wild and Scenic Rivers system. They introduced the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act (S. 322/H.R. 608) in February 2011, which is a top wilderness bill candidate for passage this year if Congress decides to move forward on it.
Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia in California
The existing Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia Wilderness Areas are made up of more than 30,000 acres of rock formations, chaparral, canyons, and unique wildlife habitat in Riverside County. Their proximity to San Diego makes their natural beauty accessible to the growing, diverse population of the city. It is a favorite area of day hikers, equestrians, and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
Protecting the Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia areas has bipartisan support. In fact, on the very first day of the 112th Congress, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced the Beauty Mountain and Agua Tibia Act (H.R. 41) to expand both wilderness areas by a total of 21,000 acres. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced companion legislation (S. 1574) in the Senate in September 2011.
Both Congress and the Obama administration have ample opportunity for the remainder of 2012 to protect some of America’s best places. All of the areas outlined above have local—and frequently bipartisan—support. It’s time for policymakers to take the next step and ensure that these special places are preserved for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.
Jessica Goad is Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.
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Research and Outreach Manager, Public Lands