What the Oregon Trail means for conservation in America

A recent survey that asked 12 environmental NGOs to rank the three environmentally-friendliest presidents declared Barack Obama the 4th-greenest in American history.

Leaving aside that his only first-place vote was awarded by Rebuild the Dream – founded by former Obama adviser Van Jones – what exactly has the current administration done to earn Obama’s 90th percentile-designation? Well, I’m not here to talk about his overall environmental record. Instead, this post will focus on one very narrow issue: the conservation of land.

You may not have noticed, but the 2010 discovery of a “secret” Interior Department memo* proposing 14 sites as potential locations for National Monument designation caused a minor ruckus. The possibility that any of them might be designated for further protection under the American Antiquities Act drew widespread opposition from such diverse groups as Republican Congressmen from Utah, the American Motorcyclist Association, and the largest collection of welfare queens in the country – otherwise known as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

*It turned out the memo wasn’t actually secret, but it’s easier to get people riled up about something when you claim it was meant to be kept secret

The opposition worked – to a degree. On Friday, Obama declared only his third National Monument. Along with Fort Ord in California and Fort Monroe in Virginia, none of the three Obama has designated have been drawn from the original list of 14 sites, possibly – and this is speculation – because of bitter opposition three years ago.

Indeed, it’s likely that Friday’s listing was possible only because it received bipartisan support:

The designation – celebrated at the site Friday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet – comes as Obama and Republican Mitt Romney intensify their battle for the presidential vote in Colorado, considered a swing state. Romney returns to Colorado on Sunday to campaign.

Yet both Democrats and Republicans – including Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents southwest Colorado – had worked for years to create the monument in the San Juan National Forest west of Pagosa Springs.

So how exactly did Friday’s listing get support from both political parties?

It could be that the new monument was already protected as a National Landmark, that it sits in 5,000 acres of ungrazeable high desert, or that a recent study found designation could double its regional economic impact to $2.4 million by 2017, but I prefer to avoid these cynical evaluations. Instead, I have my own theory for why this place was designated a national monument:

Does the site, perchance, look somewhat familiar? It should:

OK, technically, the Chimney Rock on the Oregon Trail is located in Nebraska – and is only a ‘National Historic Site’ – while the Chimney Rock designated Friday as a National Monument is in Colorado, but you can’t expect federal bureaucrats to be perfect. And I much prefer the explanation that the listing received broad bipartisan support because of the powerful Oregon Trail lobby than the aforementioned alternatives, which amount to: the conservation agenda has stalled in the face of special-interest and knee-jerk opposition.

Now, if only Obama would do something about the antibiotic-resistant dysentery* [I wish this was a joke], we could be sure about that Oregon Trail lobby.

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*Special thanks to WZS, resident dysentery expert

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