01/29/2014 04:58 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

Obama Must Do What Congress Won't: Protect Our Iconic Public Lands


In the State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said he would use his authority to protect more pristine federal lands. This was a welcome statement given Congress' failure to protect these important public lands.

Congress has before it more than three dozen land protection bills with broad public support, yet none have passed. The last Congress was the first in 40 years not to pass any legislation protecting land as new parks or wilderness.

An important foundation of governance is to seek dialogue, develop new solutions by involving various perspectives, and even -- dare I say -- negotiate and compromise. These are the basic tenants of a functioning legislative process.

But when the process is broken, shouldn't we seek other ways to achieve the people's will? I think so. The President should use his authority under the Antiquities Act to create new national monuments to protect the iconic lands identified in the bills languishing before Congress.

Several months ago, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said "[W]e cannot and will not hold our breath forever. We owe it to future generations to act. As he has already demonstrated, President Obama is ready and willing to step up where Congress falls short."

She has also issued guidance to the Interior Department on landscape-level planning and mitigation, laying the groundwork for making conservation an important part of the planning process in decisions about energy development on public lands. It appears the administration is poised to act.

The president's speech has been heralded as a signal that he is willing to act without Congress on lots of issues, including the environment. But just because Congress isn't involved doesn't mean it is easy to achieve results. Just look at the oil and gas reforms that were rolled out four years ago by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. One of the reforms would identify areas where oil and gas development would create the least conflict and identify lands that should be off-limits to oil and gas. Conservationists and local governments alike have been waiting to see the so-called "master leasing development plans" turn into reality on the ground, but none has been completed yet.

I appreciate the President's call to action and look forward to Interior moving forward on responsible decision making so that our air and water will be protected, wildlife can safely migrate across their historic ranges and hunters, anglers, wildlife watchers, hikers and others can continue to enjoy our public lands for generations to come.

I encourage sportsmen and women, recreationists, local communities and others who care about their public lands to get involved. As the president also said last night, "[P]articipation is the hard work of self-governance".