I am very happy to see that President Obama named five new national monuments yesterday. Two are dedicated to preserving public lands–the San Juan Islands in Washington and the Rio Grande Del Norte in New Mexico. Obama’s public lands policy has not been very good. His ratio of protecting versus developing the public lands is far lower than the average president since World War II. Frankly, Obama doesn’t care much about these issues. Where he does have a stronger environmental agenda is around climate. That’s fine because it’s more important. It’s also really hard to get anything concrete done on that issue. So hopefully he will seek to create a stronger environmental legacy in areas he can control.
There are also three new historical parks. One is the First State National Monument in Delaware, which is largely Joe Biden’s move to establish the first national park site in Delaware, which was the last state without one. Perhaps more significantly are two new parks that highlight African-American history, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio. The National Park Service has done a fantastic job of creating new sites around African-American history and including African-American history in existing parks. I look forward to visiting all of these places someday.
It used to be that historical parks were designated as a National Historic Site. But that takes an congressional bill. With Republicans opposed to adding anything to the park system, Obama has to use his power under the Antiquities Act to create new parks. This gives him the power to create as many new parks as he wants and hopefully he will use that power in his second administration more than he did in the first.
In a more rational country, the federal government could step in and create interesting historical sites within the park system. Take for instance, the Northern Dispensary in Greenwich Village. Due to complex legal issues, this 1831 building has sat vacant on incredibly valuable property for 20 years. What would be great is if the government bought the building and turned it into a national park on the history of medicine and 19th century New York. The building seems large enough to do this (there are smaller buildings in the system for sure. See the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia. Or the JFK birth home. It’d be a great addition, it’s a historic building, and could tell some fantastic stories.
Alas, we do not live in a rational country.