“However, some legal analyses have concluded that the Antiquities Act does not authorize the President to repeal proclamations, and that the President also lacks implied authority to do so,” wrote Alexandra Wyatt, an attorney at the Congressional Research Service. Or, as my colleague Robinson Meyer said, “The president can giveth land to conservation, but he or she cannot taketh it away.” Any attempt to do so would likely meet lengthy legal challenges.
Trump might not have any appetite for such battles. Earlier this year, he told CBS News that he doesn’t like the idea of handing federal lands to states. “I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do,” he said. “This is magnificent land. And we have to be great stewards of this land.” Speaking to Field & Stream magazine, he said, “I am for energy exploration, as long as we don't do anything to damage the land. And right now we don't need too much—there's a lot of energy.” And in a post-election speech, he claimed that he would follow the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt and “conserve and protect our beautiful natural resources for the next generation, including protecting lands.”
Such promises will ultimately count for little if his administration maintains its denial of climate change. Man-made carbon emissions are warming and making the oceans more acidic; if the U.S. reneges on its commitment to reducing such emissions, marine life will eventually suffer. But in the short term, protected waters can help its residents to cope with climate change, by removing extra stresses like drilling, fishing, and noise pollution. “We have good evidence that protected areas are more resilient and recover faster,” says Lubchenco.
That’s good news for people who depend on the sea for their livelihood. In sanctuaries and monuments, depleted populations of fish can recover, grow, and reproduce. “Fish aren’t like mammals; as females get bigger, they make lots more eggs, so if you allow fish to get big and old, you get a lot more babies,” explains Rebecca Goldburg, director of ocean science at the Pew Charitable Trusts. And since those babies can travel over long distances, protected areas act as conveyor belts that continually seed nearby fisheries with fresh stock.
Historically, most of the ocean was effectively protected, by dint of being remote and inaccessible. Now, our technology allows us to fish, mine, and drill everywhere. And the sad truth is that even the unprecedentedly large areas that Obama has protected, combined with similar reserves set up by other nations, comprise just a few percent of the total ocean. It’s a dramatic increase from a decade ago, but still “just a drop in the bucket,” says Lubchenco. “Scientists think we’ll need upwards of 30 percent.”
“While it is our oceans’ contours that shape our coastlines, it is what we decide and do here that will shape our oceans’ future,” Obama once said. “I spent my childhood on those shores, looking out over the endless ocean, and was humbled by it. And I know that, in a contest between us and the oceans, eventually the oceans will win one way or the other. So it’s us that has to adapt. Not the other way around.”
* This article originally stated that Obama “increased the amount of protected waters around the U.S. by 20 times,” which is true for the continental U.S. The increase for the nation’s waters, however, is just four-fold. We regret the error.