WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama further expanded his public lands legacy Friday by designating three new national monuments, marking the most extensive expansion of protected lands and waterways by any U.S. president.
In designating the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments, Obama winds down his final term as one of eight presidents known for a commitment to preservation and conservation, the White House said.
Obama's current track record is a turnaround from 2013 when he was criticized by the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress for failing to protect public lands "for their economic, scenic, and environmental values."
"The number of acres protected over the last four years is far fewer than under President Obama's four predecessors, including even President George W. Bush, who was condemned by environmentalists and the public for his dismal environmental record," the organization said in 2013.
At that time, 2.6 million acres of public lands had been permanently protected during the Obama administration by both the president and Congress. Of that, 186,000 acres were protected by the president using administrative authorities under the Antiquities Act, which allows the president to declare a national monument without congressional approval.
In his seven years in office, Obama has established 22 national monuments and expanded others to set aside more than 265 million acres of land and water.
The designations Friday were the single most significant action to preserve California desert in more than two decades, forming one of the largest desert conservation reserves in the world, said David Lamfron, director of California Desert and National Wildlife Programs.
"Local communities, businesses, and organizations have worked for years to preserve these critical lands, and tens of thousands of [National Parks Conservation Association] members and supporters have petitioned the president and their members of Congress to make these monuments a reality. This is not just a win for the desert—it's a win for the people who live in and love this unique part of the country," he said.
With the uptick in federally protected status for some lands comes criticism that the federal government is overstepping its bounds.
Rep. Bob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in a statement: "This is presidential bullying. The intent of the Antiquities Act is not to act as the president's magic wand to commandeer land. In order to be good stewards of our environment, we need to allow people to have a say in how they recreate and conserve their land. This doesn't. It's an authoritarian act that ignores people under the guise of preservation. The land will not be better protected and people will be harmed."
In Utah, conservation groups and 25 Native American tribes are urging Obama to use the Antiquities Act to claim a national monument of the 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears in southeastern Utah.
The push has created a rift among Utah's Native Americans, with some worrying a federal designation would hinder access to the scenic lands. The San Juan County Commission this week signed off on a resolution opposing the national monument designation, demanding only local residents have a say in what happens to the land. On Friday, a group of Republican lawmakers, Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and all four state representatives, urged Obama to back down.
"We believe the wisest land-use decisions are made with community involvement and local support," Use of the Antiquities Act within will be met with fierce local opposition and will further polarize federal land-use discussions for years, if not decades," the lawmakers wrote.
Similar feuds are playing out at the Grand Canyon in Arizona and La Bajada Mesa in New Mexico, with local groups worrying federal intervention will mean strong restrictions on the land. Obama has not indicated whether he will designate any additional national monuments during the remaining months of his term.
Among the protected lands designated by Obama:
Fort Monroe National Monument
A former military installment in Hampton, Va., Fort Monroe once protected the waterways between the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads. It was the first and largest seacoast fort built after the War of 1812. It was also the site of the first slave ships to land in the New World, Obama said in designating the land in 2011.
Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument
Designated in 2013 under the Antiquities Act, the home in Wilberforce, Ohio, once belonged to Charles Young, a man born into slavery in 1864 to become the third black graduate of West Point, the first black U.S. national park superintendent and the highest ranking black officer in the Army.
Cesar E. Chavez National Monument
Home to American farmworkers' labor leader Cesar Chavez, the 116-acre property in California was also the headquarters for the United Farm Workers. It was established as a national monument in October 2012.
Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument
Made up of seven U.S.-controlled atolls and islands, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is the largest marine conservation area in the world. The areas are a last refuge for fish and wildlife species that include sea turtles, dolphins and giant clams. It was first designated a national monument under President George W. Bush in 2009, but the Obama administration expanded the monument area. Included in the protected lands are Howland Island, Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef.
The National Park Service has a complete list of national monuments.