The future of 5,800 acres north of Santa Cruz now rests with President Obama and his final days in office. At issue is a proposed national monument that has divided a Central Coast community. Supporters feel highly optimistic Obama will create the monument, but opponents worry if that happens, the incoming Congress will do nothing to support it.
In his eight years in office, President Obama has expanded three monuments and created 26 new ones -- more than any other president.
“Teddy Roosevelt has been said had America’s best idea when he talked about preserving our incredible natural heritage and for me to be able to add to that heritage is greatly appreciated,” Obama said in 2015 while creating three national monuments with the stroke of his pen.
In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gave presidents the executive power to designate national monuments. National monuments add a layer of federal preservation and protect the land from mining and mineral leasing.
More than a century later and across the country, land on the North Coast of Santa Cruz County near Davenport could be next.
Steve Reed describes the land east of Highway 1 as transforming from rolling hills with ocean views to steep canyons and thin ridges.
“From here on a clear day, to the south, you can easily see Lovers Point in Pacific Grove and down to Big Sur. It’s one of a kind,” Reed says.
For about two years, Reed has been managing the campaign to make the land the Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument. His salary is partly paid by the Sempervirens Fund, a non-profit leading the charge. Now the push is to add the land to an expansion of the California Coastal National Monument, which already includes 1,100 miles of offshore rocks and islands along the coastline plus some onshore areas.
“And so this California Coastal National Monument Expansion Act takes a number of different properties in Humboldt County, this Cotoni-Coast National Monument, Piedras Blancas down by San Simeon and a small portion of Orange county offshore rocks and islands,” says Reed.
Reed feels confident President Obama will expand the monument, adding if it doesn’t happen now, it likely never will.
“I don’t think there’s any prospect of getting a Trump administration re-engaged in anything California or Coastal California that involved, you know, sort of the public access,” Reed says.
Historically, national monuments have had bipartisan support, but they’ve also been controversial.
In late December, President Obama created two new national monuments, including one called Bears Ears in Utah. Republican leaders there are already are calling on President-Elect Trump to repeal the executive order.
John Freemuth, Professor of Environmental Policy at Boise State University in Idaho says, “There’s no seeming precedent for anything like that.”
Freemuth, a former national parks ranger, has spent a lot of time studying the Antiquities Act.
“The Antiquities Act itself has no reference to another president repealing the actions of an earlier president, but it’s never been tested in court. Most legal scholars don’t think it’s possible,” says Freemuth.
A president could, however, change the size of a national monument. Congress could also undo the action, or limit funding. They’ve done it before.
“But that’s not an effective way to deal with the issue in the long-term because Congress gets itself into a box in terms of yes, they’re making a political statement by saying we’re not going to fund it, but at the same time they gave the president the power to create the monument in the first place,” says Freemuth.
Noel Garin-Bock has lived in Davenport for about 30 years. The small community is right next to the proposed monument expansion. She’s worried about funding.
“This is a Republican House and a Republican Senate, is there really going to be more money? I don’t think so. I would not have any faith at all that any money is coming this way for open space at all. No,” says Garin-Bock.
Two years into this debate, there are still signs not everyone supports the idea; signs staked in front yards. They read – STOP THE MONUMENT.
Garin-Bock chairs the Davenport North Coast Association, the closest thing this unincorporated community has to a city government. She says the land around Davenport is already well protected through deed restrictions. Her concern is that Davenport is not ready to handle the influx of visitors that naturally comes with national monuments.
“More visitors means more traffic and so we need to make sure that we have services for more visitors. And as we’ve said many times, emergency services up here are slim to none,” Garin-Bock says.
In the neighboring community of Bonny Doon, Ted Benhari is worried the land could be loved to death. He’s on the steering committee for the Friends of the North Coast, which has been working with the Davenport North Coast Association to voice concerns.
“If we have to wait another four years to make it a national monument, or eight, it’s not important. We have to look at the big picture and the long run because this is one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world and we don’t want to do anything to ruin that,” Benhari says.
At the very least, Benhari and Garin-Bock hope the proclamation Obama may sign includes language written up by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. That language includes conditions such as limited access until a management plan is in place.
“We met with the Department of the Interior, we met with the Council on Environmental Quality and we met with the White House to ask that it be included. So we’ve tried to do everything we can to make sure it’s in there, but at the end of the day, it’s the president and his advisors that make the final decision,” says Supervisor Ryan Coonerty says.
The board supports the national monument, but only if it’s manage properly.
President Obama has two weeks left in office to make the decision on the future of this land in Santa Cruz County.