Bruce Babbitt speaking at the National Press Club in February. Photo by James Kegley.

Bruce Babbitt served as Interior Secretary during both Clinton administrations.  Among other things, he established the National Landscape Conservation System, which includes the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and other wild public lands.

Babbitt, as ardent a conservationist in private life as he was in public, has been a persistent critic of President Obama’s environmental policies.  Excerpted below are comments from his Feb. 5th National Press Club speech entitled “On Equal Ground: Righting the Balance Between Energy Development and Conservation on Public Lands.”

“Is it possible for the President to achieve a one-to-one balance of development and conservation by the end of his second term?

. . . To meet this challenge, the President will have to make vigorous use of his executive powers beginning with the Antiquities Act in the manner of many of his predecessors.

Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to save the Grand Canyon.  Herbert Hoover used it to save Death Valley . . . Franklin Roosevelt to preserve the Grand Tetons.

. . . Let us next consider the question of wilderness and land conservation legislation.  The 112th Congress, recently departed, was the first Congress since World War II not to protect a single new acre of public land as a park, wilderness area, or national monument.

This inaction is not for a lack of wilderness bills to consider.  As of December, 2012, there were 30 wilderness and conservation land bills stalled in Congress that were sponsored—as per custom—by home state Senators or Representatives, reflecting popular support from their constituencies.  These 30 bills would protect areas in thirteen states from Oregon to Maine, totaling some 5 million acres.

Some opinion has it that, since wilderness areas are created by legislation, it must follow that Presidents have no real power to advance the cause of wilderness.

That is not the case.

. . . With prompting from President Clinton, Congress awakened and took action to establish the Otay Mountain Wilderness and the San Jacinto National Monument in California, the Steens Mountain Cooperative management Area in Oregon, the Colorado Canyons National Conservation Area in Colorado, and the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area in Arizona, among others.

With these precedents, and considering widespread public support, President Obama should turn his attention to the wilderness, parks, and conservation area bills pending in Congress.  If, for example, Senator (Diane) Feinstein’s bill to protect the more than a million acres of the Mojave Desert with a legislative Monument remains bottled up in committee, the President should work with her to examine use of executive authority as an alternative pathway to monument status.

In this way—bill by bill, place by place—the President can help advance deserving proposals on which Congress is failing to act.”