DeFazio Leads Effort to Get Obama to Protect Wilderness

The Oregonian by Jeff Mapes, January 24, 2014

Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio is in the forefront of a Democratic effort calling on President Barack Obama to use his executive powers to protect new wilderness areas if Republicans continue bottle up land-protection bills in Congress.

DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and Rep. Raul Grijalva led 109 House Democrats Friday in a new drive urging the administration to consider designating several new or expanded national monuments around the country. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer, both D-Ore., were among those signing the letter.

The letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was timed to coincide with her visit to New Mexico to discuss federal protections for the proposed Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument, a 780-square-mile area near the Mexican border.

Jewell said in a speech in November that Obama was willing to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to approve additional national monuments if necessary.  Her statements signaled a willingness to revive the battle over federal land protections that arose at the end of the Clinton administration in 2000.

That's when Clinton stepped up the use of his executive powers to designate several national monuments, including the 53,000-acre Soda Mountain area near Ashland that came to be known as the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

The designations ignited strong protests from many rural landowners and natural resource users, and the incoming Bush administration initially made noises about reversing many of them.  That didn't happen and President George W. Bush eventually used his authority to designate a huge marine sanctuary off the Hawaiian coast.

The DeFazio-Grijalva letter noted that only one of the 37 land-protection bills in the House has passed the chamber in this session of Congress.

"In today’s deeply partisan environment," the two wrote, "it’s becoming nearly impossible for Congress to make critical conservation decisions."

House Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and several other congressional Republicans have expressed skepticism about the need for additional wilderness areas.

Several Oregon proposals have been hung up in Congress, including those involving the 30,000-acre Devil's Staircase in the coast range of southern Oregon and stretches of the Rogue, Chetco and Molalla rivers.  In addition, the National Parks Conservation Association, which lauded the congressional Democrats for their letter, has pushed for expansion of the Oregon Caves National Monument in Josephine County.