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President Obama’s National Monument To-Dos Before He Leaves Office

From undersea coral canyons to deep northern woods, these seven places deserve to be part of the president’s legacy.

President Obama has so far designated 24 national monuments—more than any other president in history. (The closest anyone has come to that number was Bill Clinton, with 19 monuments. Thanks, Bill!) Within Obama’s first three months in office, way back in 2009, he established the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument—a New Mexican site that includes a major deposit of fossilized footprints from the Paleozoic era. Most recently, in June, he honored the LGBTQ rights movement by creating the Stonewall National Monument in New York City. In total, and with the help of the 1906 Antiquities Act, the president has set aside some 265 million acres for the American people to enjoy for generations to come.

Needless to say, our commander in chief has done a great deal to protect the country’s diverse cultural and natural history, but plenty of threatened national treasures still need some serious help from his presidential pen. Obama has about five months before he assumes his new role of “couch commander.” While it would be great if he went for 24 more (!), we hope he can at least squeeze these seven into his legacy. For now, let’s call it 24 and counting . . .

Tim Peterson

Bears Ears, Utah

Named for a pair of buttes that look like—you guessed it—bears’ ears, this red-rock region spans 1.9 million acres of southeastern Utah. Bears Ears contains more than 100,000 American Indian archaeological sites, including petroglyphs, pictographs, and burial grounds. Unfortunately, extractive industries, looting, and vandalism all threaten this ancestral home of more than a dozen tribes. That’s why the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is calling on the government to save “the most significant unprotected cultural landscape in the United States.” Twenty-six tribes have also voiced support for the national monument proposal, along with the National Congress of American Indians. Losing this striking landscape of canyons, mesas, and arches and the ancient culture they contain would be losing a huge chunk our country’s history.

NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC/UConn-NURTEC/UMaine 2014

Atlantic Marine Monument

The waters off the New England coast are teeming with life. Inhabiting the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts, about 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, are sperm whales, dolphins, sea turtles, seabirds, and cold-water corals. Some of these corals are centuries old and as big as trees. Beyond the canyons sit four underwater mountains, or seamounts, that rise up to 7,000 feet above the ocean floor—taller than any mountains east of the Rockies. These biodiversity hot spots are vulnerable to commercial fishing, oil and gas development, and climate change, and together these threats make them perfect candidates for the East Coast’s very first marine national monument.

Wendy Harrell/BLM Nevada


Gold Butte, Nevada

The Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and Lake Mead National Recreation Area form a horseshoe of protected areas in Arizona and Nevada. Nestled between them is Gold Butte, an expanse of 350,000 acres that’s every bit as worthy of protection. Named for a historic mining town (now a ghost town), Gold Butte contains 19th-century artifacts along with much older cultural resources, such as rock art and agave roasting pits from 3,000 years ago. The butte-ful landscape is critical habitat for desert tortoises and other rare wildlife like desert bighorn sheep and banded Gila monsters. Unfortunately, a lack of protections has led to rampant vandalism and overuse, which is threatening to degrade Nevada’s only piece of the Grand Canyon. Advocates are seeking permanent protection for the region to strike a better balance between public use and preservation.

BLM Oregon

Owyhee Canyonlands, Oregon

To appreciate just how remote the Owyhee Canyonlands are, you need only to look up. In the night sky over the 2.5 million acres of southeastern Oregon’s high desert, you can see how brightly stars shine when there is no light pollution to dull them. Of course, there’s plenty to see by daylight, too. The rugged country features steep red-rock canyons, sagebrush steppe, and free-flowing rivers, and recreational opportunities abound. In addition to containing more than 500 archaeological sites, this untouched wilderness is a stronghold for more than 200 species, including the imperiled greater sage grouse, the redband trout, and the largest herd of California bighorn sheep on the continent. National monument status would safeguard Owyhee from the mining and development threats popping up around its edges and keep those starry skies crisp and clear.

Richard Seeley/iStock

Maine Woods, Maine

The naturalist and poet Henry David Thoreau once described the “striking . . . continuousness” of the North Maine Woods. “Here prevail no forest laws but those of nature,” he wrote in The Maine Woods, published in 1864. A century and a half later, this—the largest undeveloped forest east of the Rockies—has hardly changed. Moose, black bears, and brook trout share the land’s northern hardwoods, evergreens, and wild rivers with migratory songbirds and threatened Canada lynx. For more than five years, advocates have been fighting to make a 150,000-acre national park and national recreation area in these woods along the East Branch of the Penobscot River. 

W. Tyson Joye/NPS

Greater Grand Canyon Heritage, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is a home and sacred place to 11 American Indian tribes, as well as one of the country’s most beloved natural wonders. Sadly, it’s also one of the most endangered. For the Grand Canyon to retain its awe-inspiring landscape, the 1.7 million acres surrounding it need protection, too. Uranium mining and tourist development threaten to undo centuries of preservation and positive human relationships with the land. In 2012, then interior secretary Ken Salazar put a 20-year moratorium on new mining leases in the area, but designating the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage as a national monument would make that ban permanent. This treasure in the desert, some six million years in the making, is definitely worth maintaining for future Americans.

Bob Wick/BLM California

California Coastal, California

Unlike the other places on this list, the California Coastal National Monument is already a national monument, but it’s a work in progress. Originally established in 2000 by President Clinton, it stretches the entire length of the Golden State’s 1,110-mile coastline and encompasses more than 20,000 small islands, rocks, reefs, and pinnacles. President Obama expanded the monument in March 2014, tacking on the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands, a 1,665-acre parcel on the Mendocino coast. Since then, California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have proposed adding another 6,200 acres, which would include five sites on land and one at sea. Their expansion would boost tourism and protect diverse ecological habitats—like the freshwater wetlands and coastal prairies of Cotoni-Coast Dairies and Piedras Blancas Outstanding Natural Area’s dune fields and estuaries. Win-win!

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