By Patrick Rucker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will use his executive powers to protect more mountains, rivers and forests from development if Congress does not act to preserve such wild spaces, the U.S. Interior Secretary said on Thursday.
Portions of the Grand Canyon, Redwood forests in California and Caribbean seascapes have been protected under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president broad authority to put natural terrain and historic sites under federal protection.
Such preservation efforts can also come through Congress but presidents in a second term have typically felt freer to designate such spaces unilaterally.
On Thursday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said that the president was ready to move ahead.
"There's no question that if Congress doesn't act, we will act," Jewell said at a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington.
Lawmakers have proposed roughly two dozen sites for federal protection, but partisan divisions have helped stall many of those plans.
Jewell, the former chief executive of outdoor gear and clothing retailer REI, said proposals that have backing in Congress - including planned designation of coastal regions of California and Maine as well as a swath of the Arizona desert - are among the first that could be considered.
"I'll be understanding why these places are special before we go ahead with any action," Jewell said of her plans to visit parts of the country in the coming weeks where there is a public groundswell for putting land under federal stewardship.
One of the projects thought to have public support is the Hermosa Creek Watershed in southwestern Colorado, where more than 100,000 acres of hilly, arid terrain is already popular among outdoor enthusiasts.
The proposed site abuts state and national parks. Representative Scott Tipton, a Republican congressman from western Colorado, this year joined with the state's Democratic Senator Michael Bennet to push for designation.
Although the project has local support, Tipton said the designation should come through congressional action and he discouraged the president from moving unilaterally.
"I'd be disappointed if they went ahead with this tactic," he said.
But Bennet said some projects should not be held ransom to inaction in Congress.
"The Antiquities Act is an important conservation tool, particularly when a dysfunctional Congress can't even pass non-controversial and widely-supported preservation proposals," he said in a statement.
Besides managing national parks, monuments and historic sites, the Interior Department oversees oil and gas drilling on federal land.
Jewell called for a "balanced approach to development" and said she would order future drilling proposals for federal land to include plans to mitigate surface disturbances and damage to the landscape.
Ellis Richard, the founder of Park Rangers for Our Lands, which is a voice for former National Park docents, said that he was impressed with Jewell's conservation message.
"Her speech gives us hope that we will see progress in bringing balance between protecting national parks and energy development on public lands," he said.
(Reporting by Patrick Rucker; Editing by Paul Simao)