ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — U.S Interior Secretary Sally Jewell vowed Thursday that the Obama administration will continue to use its executive powers to protect public lands until Congress takes action on a number of stalled conservation measures.
Jewell renewed the administration's threat while speaking to a few hundred wilderness advocates at a national conference in Albuquerque celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
"There are dozens of bills in Congress, and they need to be passed — dozens of bipartisan bills, bills with wide support, broad support — but no one has the courage to pass them," she said. "We need to encourage this Congress to get on with it and to move forward. Otherwise, we will take action."
The administration has been criticized in recent years for President Barack Obama using his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate a series of national monuments, including two in New Mexico and most recently the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles.
Since taking office, Obama has created or expanded 13 national monuments across the country. While the president does not have the power to designate wilderness, critics have voiced concerns that the preservation efforts being carried out administratively amount to federal land and water grabs, particularly in the West.
Jewell dismissed those allegations Thursday, saying the administration has acted only when local communities have spoken up.
"We have a little bit of an east-west divide in this country between those who yearn for more public lands and those who find it expedient to push back on federal public lands," she said.
The Interior Department through its land management agencies has been working with ranchers and other stakeholders to ensure traditional uses such as grazing, woodcutting or fishing can continue under the monument designations, she said.
In her sweeping speech, Jewell told the crowd that preserving landscapes that are representative of America's character and important to local economies in the form of tourism dollars also will help the nation better prepare for climate change.
She said scientists will be able to learn from Mother Nature how to adapt and that federally protected sites will offer buffers for communities that face receding shorelines and other threats.
Jewell said she has seen evidence of the changing climate from Alaska's northern slope to the Eastern Seaboard and Western plains, where native juniper trees are taking over sage and grasslands.
"Wilderness becomes more important, not less important, at a time of climate change," Jewell said. "We're going to have to learn lessons from Mother Nature if we're going to reduce the impact to ourselves of this freight train that is moving down the tracks very quickly — and that is climate change."