President Barack Obama has ordered the creation of two new “national monument” nature preserves in the western states of Utah and Nevada.
Areas rich in Native American artefacts, the Bears Ears National Monument and the Gold Butte National Monument effectively bans energy drilling.
Some Republicans have criticized the move and say it is tantamount to a federal land-grab. The order is the latest to build upon Obama’s environmental legacy.
Since Nov. 4, when Republican Donald Trump was elected president, Obama has blocked new mining in Yellowstone National Park and new oil drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.
The Hawaiian native has declared more land and water zones free of human development activities than any preceding US president.
Trump will have a difficult time reversing Obama’s nature preserve decisions when he occupies the White House, experts say.
Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said a sitting president cannot reverse a previous president’s national monument designations.
Politicians in the west responded with outrage to the order, announced as Congress was in holiday recess.
They consider it an undue overstepping of federal government and a block to vital energy development.
“This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand,” said Utah Senator Mike Lee about Bears Ears, which is named after some singular rock formations.
Native American tribes praised the move.
The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah will cover 1.35 million acres in the Four Corners region, which includes an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites and ancient cliff dwellings.
In Nevada, the 300,000-acre Gold Butte National Monument outside Las Vegas will protect fossils, rock art and recently detected dinosaur tracks.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye welcomed the decision.
“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge,” Begaye said. “The rocks, the winds, the land – they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”