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Score Another One for Wilderness

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For more than a century, presidents have been using the Antiquities Act to save our national treasures, and President Obama's just-announced designation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in southern New Mexico shows exactly why this law is so indispensable.

At nearly 500,000 acres (making it by far the largest monument that President Obama has designated), Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is packed with history, from archaeological sites to Billy the Kid's Outlaw Rock, to training areas for the Apollo space missions. The canyons and jagged peaks of the region's mountain ranges are both beautiful and unique.

My family and I experienced that beauty firsthand last November when we hiked the Dripping Springs Trail together with many of the folks who've been working for years to gain this protection.

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It's estimated that the new monument will attract enough new outdoor recreation and tourism to give a $7.4 million boost to the local economy. No wonder the designation received strong local support across the board -- from business owners to elected officials to residents.

As Howard Dash, a member of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Action Team of the Rio Grande Chapter's Southern Group, told me: "In Las Cruces, our team has worked hard for the designation of the national monument. It was through the Sierra Club's support that we were able to focus that effort to make it a reality. Las Cruces will be a better place for it."

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks is the eleventh national monument designated by President Obama under the Antiquities Act and, in every instance, his administration has bent over backward to get input from nearby communities and to select places that are rich in both cultural and natural heritage. In other words, the Antiquities Act is being used exactly as intended.

That fact, however, didn't keep the current U.S. House of Representatives (already notorious for being the most anti-conservation in decades) from attempting to snatch failure from the jaws of success. Earlier this year, in a close vote, the House passed a bill that would gut the Antiquities Act.

Obviously, anyone who loves wild places and wants to see them protected, knows that's a terrible idea. Many excellent candidates for national monument protection, such as Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds, Arizona's Grand Canyon Watershed, and Utah's Greater Canyonlands are still waiting. But the repercussions of losing the Antiquities Act would reverberate beyond the loss of new monuments. Remember when our national parks were closed because of the federal government shutdown? Fourteen of those national parks were reopened with funding from state governments because the states couldn't afford to lose the substantial revenue the parks generated for nearby communities. Of those 14 parks, nine were first protected as national monuments -- thanks to the Antiquities Act.

Without the Antiquities Act, it's impossible to say exactly how much poorer our national heritage would be, but there's no question it would be poorer, not just for us, but for every generation that follows. President Obama deserves a lot of credit for using the authority granted to him by the Antiquities Act to protect special places like Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, and for using it exactly the way it is supposed to be used.

Of course, anytime that Congress decides to use its own considerable authority to protect public lands, I'll be the first to stand and applaud. In the past five years, though, that's happened exactly once, which puts the tally at Obama 11, Congress 1. During this 50th anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, wouldn't it be nice to see a closer score?

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