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Defender in Chief

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Edward Abbey wrote that "the idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders." Early this year, I called on President Obama to step up and start defending wilderness by using the powers of the executive branch to do what Congress has been unable or unwilling to accomplish. Although he's been a great president for the environment in many ways, Obama was lagging when it came to protecting public lands that could otherwise be lost to development, drilling or mining.

Gradually, that has started to change. First came the welcome news that the president had designated his second national monument -- Fort Ord, near Monterey Bay. Then, just last week, his administration proposed a management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska that keeps several important wildlife areas off-limits to oil and gas drilling, including critical habitat and breeding grounds for caribou and migratory birds.

In the coming months, I expect there will be more announcements from the White House of new protections for public lands. Congress, unfortunately, is unlikely to get anything done owing to a partisan dispute on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Even a simple matter like upgrading California's Pinnacles National Monument to a national park, which has already passed the House and has strong bipartisan support, faces an uphill battle to reach the Senate floor before the current session ends and proponents have to start all over again.

What's especially frustrating about this gridlock is that the majority of Americans recognize the value of protecting our most precious public lands. What's more, the most likely candidates for protection as national monuments enjoy strong support from nearby communities. That's because people know that protecting these special places also boosts local economies.

For now, though, it's up to President Obama to move more of these national monument designations across the finish line. You can help us encourage him by joining our "My Piece of America" campaign. Already, more than 3,000 people have uploaded photos of their favorite places in America to our online map. As a bonus, the Sierra Club will give away one trip for two on a Sierra Club kayak outing to Florida's Everglades.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described the western Arctic lands that will be protected from drilling as "an iconic place on our Earth." In fact, our planet has many iconic places that need protection, and more than a few of them are right here in the United States. Time to play some defense, Mr. President.

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