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Pinnacles National Park -- a good start

President Obama signed legislation in January creating our 59th national park. He needs to keep that pen ready to sign more.

February 15, 2013|By Dayton Duncan
  • Pinnacles National Park in California became the nation's 59th national park during a ceremony attended by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
Pinnacles National Park in California became the nation's 59th national… (Los Angeles Times )

Up on Mt. Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt is smiling: America has a new national park. With its formal elevation from a national monument this week, Pinnacles National Park in California becomes the 59th in a string of magnificent landscapes that we the people have preserved for everyone and for all time. It's about time, Roosevelt would say.

When President Obama signed the legislation in January creating the new park, he ended a 10-year drought in congressional participation in what is considered "America's best idea." And he was linking himself with Roosevelt, the greatest conservation president in our history. Roosevelt's signature in 1908 establishing Pinnacles as a national monument was even more important than Obama's a century later in saving the area — 27,000 acres of spectacular rock formations and the home of dozens of endangered California condors.

Roosevelt was familiar with congressional foot-dragging when protecting America's public lands was at stake. In 1903, during his first visit to the Grand Canyon, he advised the people of Arizona: "Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." No one listened.

For 20 years, people such as John Muir had been calling for the canyon to be designated a national park, and for 20 years Congress had refused because of lobbying by special interests more interested in the canyon's commercial and industrial potential. With Roosevelt joining the effort for park status, you'd think that would have tipped the scale. Here was one of the great natural wonders of Earth — as self-evident a national park as they come — and a vigorous president calling for its preservation. Congress still wouldn't move.

Fortunately for us all, Roosevelt didn't give up. He looked at a 1906 law called the Antiquities Act, meant originally as a way to save prehistoric cliff dwellings in the Southwest from vandalism, and turned it into an invaluable tool for conservation. The act provided presidents with the authority to sign executive orders designating special places not as national parks but as national monuments.

In January 1908, Roosevelt exercised that authority and with a stroke of his pen created Grand Canyon National Monument, placing 806,400 acres out of reach from being despoiled. Days later, he also used the Antiquities Act to create the much smaller Pinnacles National Monument. And before his presidency was over, he would create 18 national monuments, many of which, like Grand Canyon and now Pinnacles, eventually were designated by Congress as national parks.

Under Roosevelt's leadership, nearly 180 million acres of federal land — an area larger than the state of Texas — would be placed under one kind of conservation protection or another: 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, five national parks, 100 million acres' worth of national forests and those 18 national monuments. That's one way to get on Mt. Rushmore.

A hundred years later, Obama has so far permanently protected 2.6 million acres, a small portion of it by creating four new national monuments through use of the Antiquities Act. (For the sake of comparison, George W. Bush set aside 3.8 million acres; Bill Clinton, 26.9 million; George H.W. Bush, 17.8 million; and Ronald Reagan, 12.5 million.) It's a start, but there are still millions of acres across the nation that need to be preserved for posterity.

Facing a Congress indifferent at best to conservation — with a House majority absolutely hostile to it — here's hoping the president makes the connection to Roosevelt even stronger than their joint signatures on what is now Pinnacles National Park.

If Congress is interested only in exploiting the commercial and energy possibilities of the lands we all own, the president has a way to make sure a better balance is achieved, perhaps in the "One-to-One" proposal recently made by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt: For every acre of land leased to the oil and gas industry during the next four years, one acre must be permanently protected for future generations.

There's plenty of ink left in the Antiquities Act pen in the Oval Office. "We are not building this country of ours for a day," Roosevelt reminded us. "It is to last through the ages."

Dayton Duncan was the writer and co-producer of Ken Burns' documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." He is a member of the board of the Conservation Lands Foundation.

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