Obama expands two western national monuments, sets aside preserves to recognize history of quest for racial justice

President Barack Obama, acting as his time in office winds down to further his noteworthy record of advancing public land conservation, moved Thursday to enlarge two existing national monuments in the West and established three national monuments in the South to recognize the long struggle for racial equality in the United States.

Obama adjusted the boundaries of California Coastal National Monument in California and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon and northern California. Both national monuments are on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior.

“The BLM manages some of the nation’s wildest and most sacred landscapes, including more than 800 areas that have been protected through congressional and presidential action,” Neil Kornze, the director of BLM, said. “We’re proud to be charged with stewarding these incredible lands for future generations, including today’s additions to the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and the California Coastal National Monument. The BLM looks forward to continuing and expanding our work with local communities to ensure successful management of these special places.”

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California Coastal National Monument. Image courtesy BLM, photo by Bob Wick.

Obama’s proclamation expanding California Coastal National Monument tracked the language of the American Antiquities Act of 1906 and pointed to the “historic or scientific interest” of six areas that will now be included in it: Trinidad Head, Waluplh-Lighthouse Ranch, Lost Coast Headlands, Cotoni-Coast Dairies, Piedras Blancas, and Orange County Rocks and Islands. The first three of those listed sites are in Humboldt County, the core of the Golden State’s “Redwood Coast,” while the others are located, respectively, in Santa Cruz County, San Luis Obispo County, and Orange County.

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Trinidad Head appears on the upper right of this photograph. Image courtesy Wikimedia, photo by TrinidadMike.

Trinidad Head, in Humboldt County, is a high promontory known as the site where Spanish explorers landed in June 1775 to claim the land now known as California for King Charles III. Portuguese sailors had discovered the site even earlier, in 1595.

The site has been the location of a picturesque lighthouse since  1871 and now also serves as location for scientific research. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration established a meteorological laboratory there in 2002, while NASA has studied trace atmospheric gases from the location since 1995. Thirteen acres of the site are now included within the boundaries of California Coastal National Monument.

Waluplh-Lighthouse Ranch is 12 miles south of Eureka. A property of high ancestral significance to the Wyot Tribe, it was used by the U.S. Coast Guard beginning in the late 1800s. The military developed a base for coastal lookout operations there during the 1940s, but now there are no buildings on the site. Visitors to the property can see the Pacific Ocean, Eel River Delta, and south spit of Humboldt Bay.

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This photo shows some of the remote Lost Coast Headlands in central California. Image courtesy BLM, photo by Bob Wick.

The Lost Coast Headlands are located 13 miles south of Waluph-Lighthouse Ranch. They are of geological value because the sedimentary rock underneath the hills, bluffs, and forests include marine fossils dating from Pleistocene Epoch. The areas’s biodiversity includes bobcats, gray fox, and mountain lions, as well as a variety of raptors, a steelhead run, and a population of threatened California red-legged frogs.

Named for an area bypassed by U.S. Highway 1, the Lost Coast area of which the headlands are part lost population beginning in the 1930s. The nearby Sinkyone Wilderness State Park and King Range National Conservation Area also aim to preserve the scenic region, known for its black sand beaches, spectacular vistas and tall redwood trees.

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This photo provides a view of the coastal lands of the Cotoni-Coast Dairies property now included within California Coastal National Monument. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Most of the land known as Santa Cruz County’s Cotoni-Coast Dairies are not now open to the public. The 5,785-acre property was obtained by The Trust for Public Land in 1998. That organization then donated 407 acres to California State Parks and most of the rest to BLM in 2014.

The Cotoni-Coast Diaries property spans six watersheds, all of which are considered to be viable Pacific salmon habitat. Three of the streams on the property – Laguna Creek, Liddell Creek, and San Vicente Creek – actually host salmon or steelhead spawners.  The mammal population is also diverse. As described in Obama’s proclamation:

“The diversity of the uplands vegetation in Cotoni-Coast Dairies supports a rich wildlife community including a vast and varied mammalian population. Among the many species inhabiting Cotoni-Coast Dairies are California voles, dusky-footed woodrats, black-tailed jackrabbits, mule deer, and gray fox. Evidence also suggests that both bobcats and mountain lions hunt here.

“Visitors to Cotoni-Coast Dairies may be able to catch a glimpse of a variety of avian species, including black swifts, orange crowned warblers, American kestrels, Cooper’s hawks, white-tailed kites, and peregrine falcons. In the riparian areas, one may encounter Wilson’s warblers, downy woodpeckers, and tree swallows, among others. Various bat species, including the Townsend’s big-eared bat, can be seen darting overhead at dusk.”

The land given by The Trust for Public Land to California was later opened to the public as Coast Dairies State Park.

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Elephant seals rest on the beach at Piedras Blancas. Image courtesy Scripps Institute of Oceanography, photo by Wolf Berger.

Piedras Blancas, about 40 miles north of San Luis Obispo, is known for its elephant seal rookery and its historic lighthouse. The site has long been important to native Americans because, for at least 3,000 years, it was a location for trading between different cultures. The explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo claimed it for Spain in 1542 and, three-plus centuries later, a lighthouse was built there in the 1870s.

Elephant seals are not the only pinniped visitors to Piedras Blancas. California sea lions and harbor seals are also common there. Whales and dolphins can be seen from the beaches. The region also serves as habitat for a variety of birds, amphibians, and reptiles and boasts a broad array of plants, including at least 70 native species.

The sixth area included in Obama’s expansion of California Coastal National Monument is in southern California. The Orange County Rocks and Islands are important habitat for a variety of sea birds, including the formerly endangered brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), and marine mammals. They also provide a unique view of coastal geology for visitors to the coast.

Designated by Congress during the 1930s as sites for lighthouses, the Orange County Rocks and Islands were the only offshore California lands that had not previously been included in the California Coastal National Monument.

California Coastal National Monument was established in 2000 by President William Jefferson Clinton. Clinton’s proclamation emphasized that his decision to create the preserve was motivated principally by a desire to protect marine wildlife habitat.

Obama expanded the monument in March 2014 to include the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands, a scenic coastal area in Mendocino County that includes dunes, prairies, riverbanks, shelves, tidepools, and the mouth of the Garcia River.

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Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Image courtesy BLM.

Obama’s other national monument expansion announced Thursday impacts another Clinton-era designation. The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, first set aside in 2000, is now about 48,000 acres larger.

Focusing on the region’s significance to an array of wildlife, Obama’s Jan. 12 proclamation explained that the uniquely abundant biodiversity in the Cascade-Siskiyou region provided a convincing reason for the expansion:

“Cascade-Siskiyou’s biodiversity, which provides habitat for a dazzling array of species, is internationally recognized and has been studied extensively by ecologists, evolutionary biologists, botanists, entomologists, and wildlife biologists. Ranging from high slopes of Shasta red fir to lower elevations with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, incense cedar, and oak savannas, the topography and elevation gradient of the area has helped create stunningly diverse ecosystems. From ancient and mixed-aged conifer and hardwood forests to chaparral, oak woodlands, wet meadows, shrublands, fens, and open native perennial grasslands, the landscape harbors extraordinarily varied and diverse plant communities. Among these are threatened and endangered plant species and habitat for numerous other rare and endemic species.”

The President also highlighted the imperative of providing space for animal populations to move, specifically mentioning the major features that will now be included in the national monument: Horseshoe Ranch, the Jenny Creek watershed, the Grizzly Peak area, Lost Lake, the Rogue Valley foothills, the Southern Cascades area, and the area surrounding Surveyor Mountain.

Among the many species found in this area are hundreds of flowering plants, several ferns, and at least six trees. Obama also cited the presence of 14 raptors, including the threatened northern spotted owl, a large variety of songbirds and avians dependent on marshes and other freshwater resources, and a long list of amphibians, fish, invertebrates, mammals, and reptiles.

Obama also noted the region’s significance to native Americans and as a path for the Applegate Trail.

The two western national monument expansions were not Thursday’s only invocations of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Obama also set aside three small national monuments in the south.

Each is aimed at  commemorating the sites of important events in the nation’s long quest for equal justice and equal rights and all three will be managed by the National Park Service.

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This photo shows the Freedom Riders bus in flames following an attack on African-Americans working to secure their Constitutional rights. Image courtesy National Park Service.

The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, in Birmingham, Ala., and the Freedom Riders National Monument, in Anniston, Ala., pay homage to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, while Reconstruction Era National Monument in becomes the only component of the National Park System that aims to build public awareness of the post-Civil War era in which the federal government worked to integrate freed slaves into the national political and economic fabric.

“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” U.S. secretary of interior Sally Jewell said. “Now the National Park Service, America’s Storyteller, will forever be responsible for safeguarding the narrative of not only the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights movement but also the hope of the Reconstruction Era, which for far too long, has been neglected from our national conscience.”

With Thursday’s announcements Obama became the most prolific land and water conservationist of all American chief executives. He has designated or increased the size of 34 national monuments during his eight-year tenure, two more than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The total amount of acreage, including both land and ocean-based national monuments, that Obama has preserved is in excess of 550 million acres.

 

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Obama administration seeks reduction in methane emissions from oil and gas facilities on public lands

The U.S. Department of Interior has proposed regulations aimed at limiting the amount of a potent greenhouse gas emitted from oil and natural gas exploration wells.

Announced Jan. 22, the new rule would require energy companies to scale back the amount of flaring from 7,200,000 cubic feet per month per well to 1,800,000 cubic feet per month per well within three years. Well operators would have the choice of capturing gases that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere or reducing production as means of achieving the target. Emergency flaring would not be limited.

“I think most people would agree that we should be using our nation’s natural gas to power our economy – not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere,” secretary of the interior Sally M. Jewell said in a statement. “We need to modernize decades-old standards to reflect existing technologies so that we can cut down on harmful methane emissions and use this captured natural gas to generate power and provide a return to taxpayers, tribes and states for this public resource.”

Flaring is used by energy producers as a way of eliminating gases released from underground during extraction of fossil fuel resources, particularly oil. The gases are considered by the fossil fuel extractor to be either not economically useful or infeasible to store or transport.

These “waste” gases are mostly methane. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that about 29 percent of total American methane emissions to the atmosphere comes from fossil fuel extraction infrastructure, including wells, storage tanks, pipelines, and processing facilities. Worldwide, as much as 5.3 trillion cubic feet of methane is released to the atmosphere every year from fossil fuel extraction, transportation, storage, and processing systems.

Aside from the methane emissions caused by flaring, about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide are also added to the atmosphere every year as the result of flaring around the world.

Flaring also costs the taxpayer money. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the gases flared to the atmosphere from wells and related infrastructure on U.S. public lands means that about $23 million in royalties otherwise payable to the federal treasury is lost to the government.

Video courtesy U.S. GAO.

Environmental advocacy organizations reacted cautiously to the Obama administration’s initiative.

“These rules are an important start to reducing potent methane pollution—which fuels climate change and threatens public health—from oil and gas companies operating on our nation’s public lands,” Meleah Geertsma, an attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “However, they fall short of what’s necessary to tackle the full scope of the problem, including leaving significant gas leaks and flaring unaddressed.”

“At a minimum, the administration should require the industry to put all of the available and cost-effective measures in place to curb this rampant air pollution problem,” Geertsma continued. “That’s true not just for public lands—but all oil and gas operations, new and old, nationwide.”

The rules announced by Jewell are not yet final. The proposed rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of Interior, will accept comments for 60 days following publication.

President Barack Obama announced in Jan. 2015 that his administration would seek to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by 40 to 45 percent by 2025. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed in August 2015 a regulation that would limit methane emissions from new or modified oil and natural gas extraction facilities.

 

Interior secretary Jewell dismisses call to end federal fossil fuel leasing, disappoints environmentalists

The Obama administration’s chief public land and continental shelf manager did not have any encouraging words Wednesday about a proposal to end federal oil and coal leasing.

Responding informally to a letter from more than 400 organizations and individuals concerned about anthropogenic climate change that was delivered Tuesday to the White House, secretary of the interior Sally Jewell rejected the idea of eliminating fossil fuel production on the federal estate because the country “continues to be dependent on fossil fuels.”

“Right now, we are sitting under lights that are most likely powered by coal, in the East,” she said, according to The Hill newspaper. “Maybe some of you walked here, but most of you probably burned some fossil fuels in one way or another to get here. There are millions of jobs in this country that are dependent on these industries, and you can’t just cut it off overnight and expect to have an economy that is, in fact, the leader in the world.”

Environmental group leaders roundly criticized Jewell’s comments.

“This is a straw man, and Secretary Jewell knows it,” May Boeve, the executive director at 350.org said in a statement. “Absolutely no one is suggesting that we can end society’s reliance on fossil fuel use tomorrow, but that’s no excuse for failing to do our part today.”

Taylor McKinnon, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, explained that current leasing plans account for “decades’ worth” of oil and coal, “more than can ever be safely burned.”

“The fact that society uses fossil fuels doesn’t obviate the need to quickly de-carbonize and stop digging them up,” McKinnon said. “Sixty-seven million acres of public land and ocean are already leased to industry. Those contain 43 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution. And this is atop 42 million more acres proposed by her agency on Friday.”

McKinnon was referring to two oil and gas exploration leases in the Gulf of Mexico that were proposed Sept. 11 by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

If approved, those leases could result in the production of at least 531 million barrels of oil and more than two trillion cubic feet of natural gas. They would cover more than 40 million acres off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

A report released last month by Eco-Shift Consulting on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth concluded that combustion of the remaining fossil fuels available on the federal estate would result in the equivalent as much as 450 billion tons of carbon dioxide being discharged to the atmosphere.

“This is equivalent to 13 times global carbon emissions in 2014 or annual emissions from 118,000 coal-fired power plants,” the report said.

President Barack Obama probably does have the authority to terminate future fossil fuel leases, both on the public lands and offshore. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 gives the President essentially unilateral authority to remove areas of the OCS from oil and gas exploration and extraction activities, while the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 requires only some reporting and analysis requirements as a prerequisite to executive authority to remove Bureau of Land Management acreage from energy leasing.

The Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act of 1987 grants to BLM and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service discretion to decide whether to permit oil and gas leasing. Similarly, the Mineral Leasing Act, as amended by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, affords both the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture wide latitude on the question whether to allow coal mining on BLM and USDA Forest Service land:

“The secretary of the interior is authorized to divide any lands subject to this Act which have been classified for coal leasing into leasing tracts of such size as the secretary finds appropriate and in the public interests and which will permit the mining of all coal that can be economically extracted in such tract and thereafter the secretary shall, in his or her discretion, upon the request of any qualified applicant or on his or her own motion, from time to time, offer such lands for leasing and shall award leases thereon by competitive bidding.”

The federal public lands comprise about 650 million acres, while the continental shelf exceeds 1.7 billion acres. The amount of federal public land leased for oil, gas, and coal extraction is about 55 times as large as Grand Canyon National Park.

The Sept. 15 letter to Obama by the coalition writing under the name “Keep It in the Ground” argued that Washington will not be able to meet any meaningful international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if federal fossil fuel leasing is not terminated.

“The science is clear that, to maintain a good chance of avoiding catastrophic levels of warming, the world must keep the vast majority of its remaining fossil fuels in the ground,” the letter said. “Federal fossil fuels — those that you control — are the natural place to begin. Each new federal fossil fuel lease opens new deposits for development that should be deemed unburnable. By placing those deposits off limits, stopping new leasing would help align your administration’s energy policy with a safer climate future and global carbon budgets.”