When President Obama told Congress he was going to use his "phone and pen" to push policy without lawmakers' permission, seal and seabird conservation probably didn't top his agenda.
Nevertheless, Obama on Tuesday unilaterally expanded a national monument in Northern California, adding new protections for thousands of acres of Pacific coastline. The newly protected land, which is about 100 miles up the coast from San Francisco, is part of the Point Arena public lands — a swath of coastline that provides habitat for a string of threatened creatures, including an endangered beaver species and the California red-legged frog.
It's also a marine-mammal bonanza, according to the White House, which billed it as home to "harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and an occasional elephant seal."
But though seal habitat is hardly a hot topic in the endless Beltway battles, Obama's monument designation nevertheless found its way into the ongoing power struggle between the president and congressional Republicans.
To expand the monument, Obama used the Antiquities Act, a century-old statute that allows the president to create national monuments by use of executive action. Obama has now used that authority to make 10 such designations. Without it, creating monuments would require an act of Congress.
Doc Hastings, the Washington Republican atop the House Natural Resources Committee, ripped the president for going it alone. The House passed legislation to expand the California monument in July, and Hastings said Obama should have waited for — or demanded that — the Senate take action on its own version of the bill.
"Instead of using imperial powers, the president should pick up the phone and call upon Senate Democrats to take action," Hastings said in a statement. "There is no inherent danger to this area of compelling reason for the president to take unilateral action now. The Senate simply needs to do their job and pass the bill."
More broadly, however, congressional impasse has kept conservation designations at a standstill. The 112th Congress was the first in more than four decades not to pass legislation designating a single new acre of wilderness.
Democrats and environmental groups have traditionally pushed such designations. Republicans have been generally wary of them, as they've been hesitant to put restrictions on energy development and frequently demanded such designation have near-unanimous local support.
That gridlock, however, may be cracking, if only slightly: The House last week voted to grant wilderness protection for several thousand acres of Michigan shoreline. The Senate had already approved the measure, and — with a soon-to-be-issued signature from Obama — it will mark the 113th Congress's first successful land-conservation designation.