It's probably going too far to say that former president and onetime oilman George W. Bush was a better conservationist than President Obama. But they're not as far apart as most people think.
True, Bush and his Interior secretary, Gale A. Norton, treated federal lands like a private commodity, opening millions of acres of forest to logging and greatly expanding mining and oil drilling with little heed of the environmental costs. But to his credit, Bush set aside more ocean for federal protection than any president in history, creating three national monuments in far-flung Pacific islands and atolls and a separate 140,000-square-mile monument from Kauai to Midway. These teeming ocean habitats are protected from undersea mining, and fishing there is strictly limited.
What has Obama done? After former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a hero to many conservationists because of his strong tenure during the Clinton administration, criticized Obama's record in a speech before the National Press Club this week, Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff responded that Obama had protected more than 2 million acres of wilderness and miles of scenic rivers. If Obama is going to take credit for this, he might as well take credit for the financial meltdown, because both happened before his time. In the waning days of the Bush administration, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed through a two-year omnibus bill that represented the biggest expansion of wilderness protection in a quarter of a century; because Bush was gone by the time it was approved by the then-Democrat-majority House, Obama had the privilege of signing it. But he had little or no influence over its passage.