To the question of which president has protected the most land, Teddy Roosevelt would seem like a shoo-in. Roosevelt was no slouch in the conservation department, establishing 230 million acres of public land across the growing U.S. of A. For reference, that’s about equal to the combined size of Alaska, New York, and Utah.
Roosevelt’s environmental legacy includes the establishment of 51 national bird refuges, the creation of the U.S. Forest Service, the establishment of five national parks, and the initiation of an honest national discussion about the value of conservation and natural resources. Some of these achievements were legislative “wins” in conjunction with Congress.
Stubborn and focused, he also was savvy at getting around the governmental tedium and figuring out how to move forward in times of urgency. Stopping the rampant looting of ancient artifacts was one such urgency. With that as an impetus, Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law in 1906.
The primary power of the Antiquities Act is that it gives the president the authority to designate historic sites and national monuments without legislative approval from Congress. It proved immediately to be one of the most, if not the most, effective ways to protect public lands and waterways. Roosevelt himself invoked it 18 times over a three-year period, securing such national gems as the Grand Canyon, Muir Woods, and Mount Olympus.
To this day, the Antiquities Act remains the singularly the most powerful conservation tool a president has in his or her arsenal. And though it’s often misunderstood and regarded as politically contentious, it has enjoyed bipartisan application throughout its entire 110-year history. As such, it is behind the protection of over one-half billion acres of land and water. Every president has invoked it, with the exception of Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. Of course, those three weren’t exactly winning awards from conservation groups.
“The Antiquities Act is an important tool that has been used by both Republicans and Democrats to keep areas important to the American people just like they are for current and future generations to enjoy,” said Matt Keller, National Monuments Campaign Director at The Wilderness Society, a non-profit organization that advocates to protect wilderness. “The Act empowers the president to protect areas of historic and scientific value, and keeps areas open for a wide array of outdoor recreation while protecting these values.”
Presidents can, of course, still collaborate with Congress via legislative pathways. A few deserve a huge shoutout for their conservation achievements that utilized both the Antiquities Act and Congressional legislation to protect massive acreage. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Carter, and Clinton all made huge strides.
But it comes back to the Antiquities Act for the one president who slingshot his way from a tepid environmental start to the man who would set the existing record for protecting the most acreage. President Barack Obama has blown the doors off the record by protecting approximately 265 million acres of public land and waters.
The bulk of the acreage came in September 2014 by way of the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument. That designation created the largest marine reserve in the world, at approximately 257 million acres. The most recent round of designations occurred in February 2016, with the Mojave Trails National Monument, Sand to Snow National Monument, and Castle Mountains National Monument, all in California.
If we want to be tedious and only count land, Roosevelt takes the crown. But protection is protection and ecosystems aren’t limited to terra firma. So, with a total of 265 million acres to his credit, Mr. Obama has earned the title as the president who has protected the most.
Matt Keller is bullish that Obama’s numbers will continue to grow through the remainder of his term, in large part due to the president’s inclusive approach to designation. “The Obama administration has been very deliberate and transparent when considering designation of new national monuments, and has taken into consideration local concerns and issues,” Keller said. “They have done a great job to date, and I’m optimistic that we’ll see more areas designated throughout the rest of President Obama’s term.”
Photo by Andrew.