The last Congress was the first since World War II that did not designate a single acre of wilderness, Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told the National Press Club Tuesday.
Babbitt urged President Barack Obama to set an annual target for conserving national lands for Congress to meet equal to the lands it opens for oil and gas leasing. If it doesn’t meet his goals, Babbitt said Obama should suspend leasing.
He should begin, Babbitt said, by protecting 4 million acres to make up for the lack of protection during his first term. More than two million acres were leased for oil and gas development in 2011, according to the National Parks and Conservation Association.
Babbitt also urged Obama to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 not only to create national monuments, but also to motivate Congress to protect areas as President Clinton did with the Steens Mountain area in Oregon. Clinton’s consideration of the Owyhee Canyonlands as a national monument led to the protection of more than 500,000 acres of wilderness in southwest Idaho.
“The best defense of the Antiquities Act is to use it,” Babbitt said.
In response to a question, Babbitt expressed support for Obama designating lands surrounding Mesa Falls in eastern Idaho on the west side of Yellowstone National Park as a national monument. The area, proposed by an Idaho Statesman reader in 2007, was studied by Interior officials when former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was Interior Secretary.