12/09/2013 02:14 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

A Monumental Time to Act

Former Sierra Club president Edgar Wayburn once pointed out that, in at least one respect, wilderness was like any other natural resource: "Once it is consumed, it is gone forever."

When that happens, we lose a lot more than scenery. We lose critical habitat for plants and animals that are already stressed by climate disruption. We lose recreational opportunities and the long-term economic benefits for neighboring communities that come with them. We lose an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage -- not just for ourselves but also for generations to come.

The good news is that we still have time to protect some of our finest public lands before it's too late. The bad news is that Congress has become a black hole from which no conservation legislation has been able to escape for several years. Instead, the House of Representatives has cranked out a stream of bills that would increase drilling, hand over sacred lands to foreign mining companies, extend grazing leases without proper environmental review; allow states to take over management of federal lands; and undermine (or even eliminate) environmental protections such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

Although it would be wonderful if Congress were to come to its senses anytime soon, chances of that are slim. If we want any real progress on protecting public lands, then our best hope is the executive branch. And in fact, there's reason to be optimistic that the Obama administration might deliver.

Last Halloween, at a National Press Club event, Obama's new Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, fired this shot across the bow of the most dysfunctional and anti-environmental Congress in history:

Protecting the special places that communities care about most and passing sustainable budgets that support our public lands are the kind of commonsense, bipartisan actions that Americans want to see Congress take, but we cannot and will not hold our breath forever. We owe it to future generations to act, and President Obama is ready and willing to step up where Congress falls short.

Actually, President Obama has stepped up on several occasions and designated new national monuments. But given the current state of Congress, he needs to take his game to a higher level. Many first-rate candidates for national monument status are still waiting -- from the seashore of Northern California to the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks of New Mexico. The opportunity to save these places won't always be there. President Obama needs to act before it's too late.

We cannot and will not hold our breath forever. Well, why hold it at all? Let's tell President Obama that we're ready to see him do what Congress won't: Protect these wild places before they're gone forever. Then we'll all be able to breathe a little easier.