In the summer of 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Antiquities Act. The act, which gave the president the unilateral authority to designate any federal land a national monument, marked the beginning of a new era in American conservation. Roosevelt wasted no time in putting it to use, establishing America’s first national monument, Devil’s Tower, just a few months later. In total, Roosevelt established 18 national monuments during his presidency and set aside 230 million acres of land for conservation purposes, the most of any president in the 20th century. Roosevelt’s record for setting aside the most acreage of any president stood for 100 years until President Barack Obama took office.
As Obama’s second term winds to a close, the 44th President leaves behind a notable conservation legacy. With 24 new national monuments and a total of 265 million acres of land protected during his presidency, Obama surpasses Roosevelt in terms of total acreage and the number of monuments designated. Obama now stands alone atop the conservation leaderboard. Granted, much of the acreage designated by Obama stems from the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument, a marine monument that encompasses 257 million acres. However, this does not detract from the sheer amount of land and monuments protected by Obama.
Part of what makes Obama’s conservation statistics so impressive is that virtually all of his designations and protections took place during his second term. Over the course of his first term, Obama designated just 2.6 million acres of land and four national monuments. For a president who came to power with the promise of addressing a “planet in peril,” many environmentalists felt betrayed.
When Obama’s second term began in 2013, many criticized his poor conservation record. Up until that point, Obama had protected less land than even his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, had. Conservationists across the board called on Obama to strengthen his commitment to conserving public lands. He responded in a big way. The president designated five new national monuments that March. He designated two more monuments in 2014, six more in 2015, and seven thus far in 2016.
These new monuments range in scope from natural wonders, like Katahdin Woods and Waters, to cultural landmarks like Stonewall, which honors the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. They span the natural and cultural landscape of the country, highlighting areas and places long worthy of recognition. Few expected such a stark turnaround from Obama, given the low expectations set during his first term. However, these new monuments, coupled with Obama’s efforts to fight climate change, place his environmental record in a league second to few, if any, American presidents. He leaves behind a legacy that will benefit future generations for years to come.