With two new massive set-asides in his final weeks in office, President Obama has moved aggressively to solidify a legacy on public lands that’s often put the White House at odds with state officials who want to see more local control over land use.
Mr. Obama already held the record for creating or expanding national monuments when he used the Antiquities Act last week to set aside a combined 1.65 million acres for Bears Ears in Utah and Golden Butte in Nevada.
In doing so, however, Mr. Obama also solidified his reputation for using public lands to reward his friends and enrage his enemies.
Environmentalists cheered his commitment to conservation, but Republican lawmakers, state officials and locals accused him of ignoring their input in order to score political points, lock up productive lands and expand federal control.
Rep. Rob Bishop, the Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said the hotly disputed designations represent business as usual for Mr. Obama.
“Much of the agenda, like the monuments, was done behind closed doors, in the shadows, in secret, and would otherwise be rejected under established democratic processes,” said Mr. Bishop. “They systematically abused executive powers through unilateral rules, orders and memorandums designed to make energy and resource development uneconomical.”
In the name of environmental protection, the Obama administration has tightened its hold on federal lands, adding layers of regulation on energy development, halting new coal leases, using the Endangered Species Act to restrict grazing, and taking a hard line on violations.
“Keep it in the ground, lock it up and let it burn. That’s been the policy for the last eight years,” said Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder, who heads the American Lands Council.
The result has been a backlash by groups such as the council, which formed in 2012 to counter the Obama administration’s expansion of federal authority by calling for transferring control of federal lands to the states.
Environmentalists have responded by doubling down with a push to stop energy development on public lands altogether with the “keep it in the ground” movement.
Mr. Obama’s final year in office has also seen a surge in unrest from protesters on public lands. In January, anger on the ground turned deadly when Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed at an FBI roadblock during an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon.