During his two terms as president, Barack Obama is credited with conserving more of the American landscape than any other U.S. president: more than 548 million acres, ranging from corals reefs to deserts to arctic refuges and even cultural heritage sites.
And Obama’s impact has also been felt in the Four Corners, where he designated national monuments and enacted countless energy policies, including regulations on methane gas releases and pushing toward renewables.
“Obama and his administration have made tremendous progress on conservation in the Four Corners,” said Conservation Colorado’s southwest spokeswoman Micha Rosenoer. “His environmental legacy is vast here.”
But as with any U.S. president, Obama’s legacy will be interpreted a myriad of ways, from those who feel he went too far or not far enough.
Chimney RockIn 2012, Obama used his executive authority to declare a national monument at Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, a 4,726-acre site east of Durango that contains the ruins of about 200 ancestral Puebloan structures that date back 1,000 years.
Obama’s push to elevate the archaeological site to a more protected status bypassed a Congress that was unable to agree on a bill for a national monument at Chimney Rock, despite bipartisan support.
Frustrated, co-sponsors Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., urged Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act, which he did Sept. 21, 2012.
“Making Chimney Rock a national monument will preserve and protect the site and drive tourism, drawing more visitors to the region and the state and bringing more dollars into the local economy,” Bennet said at that time.
Bears EarsIn one of his final acts as president, Obama on Dec. 28 signed a proclamation that created the Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah.
Proponents say the national monument status on 1.35 million acres west of Monticello will better protect the environmental and cultural resources of Native American tribes that have lived in the region for the past 3,000 years.
And while the designation has drawn fierce criticism from Republican state politicians who claim the act was a federal land grab, there is distinct language in the proclamation that gives local tribes unprecedented say over how the lands are managed.
“We’re talking about sovereign people who are seeking to protect important cultural heritage sites,” said Camilla Feibelman, director of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club. “This was an administration willing to listen to the grass-roots people and respond.”
Two national monuments in N.M.In March 2013 and in May 2014, Obama declared national monuments at two New Mexico sites: Rio Grande Del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, respectively.
At Rio Grande del Norte, northwest of Taos, more than 242,455-acres were protected, which includes stunning volcanic peaks, vast gorges home to Native American ruins, as well as a diverse ecosystem that serves as critical winter habitat for wildlife.
Further south near Las Cruces, the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument contains a variety of geological, paleontological and archaeological resources. There, half of the 496,330-acre monument is designated wilderness and closed to development or motorized used.
Hermosa Creek watershedWhile it was Obama’s signature in December 2014 that made it federal law, the legislation that would protect the Hermosa Creek watershed north of Durango was more than 50 years in the making.
The bill that ultimately passed was the result of more than 20 work-group meetings between a vast array of stakeholders: conservationists, mining companies, ranchers, mountain bikers, to name a few.
And despite hiccups in the legislative process, Bennet, Tipton and Udall again were able to guide the bill toward approval, which set aside 38,000 acres as wilderness and marked 70,650 acres to support a wide range of uses, which include mining, ATV riding and timber harvesting, among others.
Push for renewablesLaurie Dickson, executive director of Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency (4CORE), said the local nonprofit formed just as President Obama rolled out his 2009 stimulus package that included $5 billion for weatherizing low-income family homes.
As a result, Dickson said 4CORE was able bring in $5.2 million to Southwest Colorado and provide energy efficiency improvements to about 700 homes, among other projects. The grant also provided a number of jobs to the region, she said.
When those funds dried up, Dickson said 4CORE was able to receive at least 12 grants over Obama’s eight years as president, largely from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The grants resulted in, among other accomplishments, the installation of solar panels at Southwest Horizons Ranch and Habitat for Humanity homes. The group just received another grant to provide solar energy for a low-income senior housing project in Archuleta County.
“In general, because of Obama our organization has thrived,” Dickson said.
Legacy called a ‘mixed bag’As Obama’s final days come to a close, there will be no end to reflections on what he accomplished and what impact that will have for future generations.
Dan Olson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based environmental advocacy group, called Obama’s legacy a “mixed bag.”
While Obama was able to institute stricter rules on methane gas production, place a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands and lead the global treaty, the Paris Agreement, which aims to curb climate change, there will always be a sense of what could have been, Olson said.
“Oil and gas leasing under Obama really continued at pace if not sped up,” he said. “It just seems to be this: ‘We realize there’s a problem, but nonetheless, we’re going forward with coal (and natural gas) as source of energy.”
Conservation Colorado’s Rosenoer agreed.
“We’ll look back on Obama’s legacy and wonder how much he could have done if Congress wasn’t so obstructionist,” she said. “Given the challenges with partisanship heavier than it’s ever been, I think he did a wonderful job.”
TrumpAll interviewed for this story expressed concern with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
For 4CORE’s Dickson, if Trump defunds the EPA or other programs meant to aid the development of renewable energy, money for local initiatives could dry up.
“Solar and renewable energy are on a fast track forward, and it’s creating more jobs than traditional sources of energy,” she said. “And there’s no turning back, no matter who’s at the helm.”
For environmental groups, the reasons for concern seem endless, evidenced by the nominations of Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier, for EPA administrator and Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO, for secretary of state.
“That’s a one-worder,” Olson said of Trump’s possible impact on the environment. “Bleak. The environmental community is bracing for a very challenging next four years.”