COMMENTARY: As President Obama ends eight years in office, one of the highlights of his time as president has been his commitment to preserving and protecting public lands that not only have ecological, recreational, and aesthetic value, but also tell the complicated and triumphant story of our nation and all its people.
This is an achievement that should be celebrated.
On Jan. 12, in celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., President Obama designated the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument and Freedom Riders National Monument in Alabama and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in South Carolina. These new monuments are central to telling the story of our nation’s civil rights struggle.
For example, included in the monument in Birmingham is the A.G. Gaston Motel. In the spring of 1963, it was headquarters for Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as civil rights leaders engaged in a campaign of nonviolent direct action in Birmingham. This campaign would change America forever, and the Gaston Motel is a worthy monument to a watershed time in our history.
This designation is another clear statement by President Obama that the stories of all Americans matter and that they deserve celebration through our protected public lands and places. In fact, President Obama’s lands legacy will be noted as one of intertwining the preservation of our natural wonders while also highlighting American cultural heritage.
Similar actions by the president to preserve America’s diverse history include monuments to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad; Cesar E. Chavez’s home in California; the Belmont-Paul home in Washington, D.C., celebrating women’s equality; Honouliuli Monument telling the story of Japanese-American internment during World War II; and the Stonewall Monument to the struggle for LGBT rights; among many others.
Here in New Mexico, the two monuments designated by President Obama — Rio Grande del Norte in Northern New Mexico and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks outside Las Cruces — are rich with historical significance. These monuments include Native American sites and petroglyphs; ancient Hispanic settlements along the Camino Real; and more recent areas worthy of preservation such as the Butterfield Stage Route, World War II aerial targets and NASA Apollo Mission training sites.
As we turn the page on the president’s time in office, there are already troubling moves afoot by members of Congress who would seek to undo our nation’s newest public lands protections. This is wrong and it does a major disservice to anyone who cares about the full story of our country as it is expressed through these national monuments.
These opponents are also looking to weaken the Antiquities Act, which made these designations possible. Again, this would be folly.
The Antiquities Act has proven to be an excellent tool that allows presidents to act in the best interest of the country and its posterity. It allows for monuments of critical importance to be established when polarizing politics thwart even the most non-controversial of monuments from being designated.
Take Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, for example. This monument, designated in 2014, resulted from more than a decade of work by tribal and Latino leaders elected officials, local businesses, sportsmen, veterans, faith leaders and other citizens who all worked tirelessly through Congress, but to no avail. When Congress did not act, the president — with appeals from Sens. Udall, Heinrich and Bingaman, and from citizens locally and across our state and nation — showed true leadership and gave the people of Southern New Mexico their monument.
New Mexicans’ heritage and quality of life are intertwined with our public lands. We hope that Congressman Ryan Zinke, nominated to be our next secretary of interior, will commit to protecting our heritage and our nation’s national monuments, parks, refuges, and other conservation lands — and vow to oppose efforts by Congress to weaken the Antiquities Act.
Ralph Arellanes lives in Albuquerque and is the chairman of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico.