Obama needs to act, now

An irony of public life is the handful of macro issues (national security, primary education, preserving our natural heritage) which transcend politics but nevertheless begs for political leadership. Statesmanship and the political sphere don’t need to be mutually exclusive. And in politics — as with romance and gambling — timing is everything.

For small-business owners, tourism boosters, and conservationists laboring to safeguard 955 acres of federal land in the San Juan Islands, time defies physics, slamming into a political firewall. Spurning President Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, U.S. House Republicans are saying nay to all public lands’ bills. All.

What if the lands are pristine, essential habitat already under the federal domain, as is the case with the proposed San Juan Islands National Conservation Area (NCA)? Still, an obstreperous, partisan no. (Subsequent editions of Webster’s Dictionary could feature a thumbnail of the U.S. Capitol affixed to the definition of “gridlock.”)

NCA legislation was originally introduced by Rep. Rick Larsen and Sen. Maria Cantwell, and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has hosted two public meetings to brainstorm protection. Now, with the coarsening of political rhetoric and Congressional inertia, the save-it imperative has been reduced to hurry up and wait.

For decades islanders have embraced the natural gems that comprise the San Juan Islands NCA proposal, elbowing for added protection of places such as Turn Point on Stuart Island along with Patos Island. These are unique, radiant landscapes, key habitat for nesting falcons, marine mammals, bald eagles and rare plants.

Gaining access to these natural areas is essential to the local community. The windfall from wildlife viewing, kayaking, and hiking ripples out to the regional economy, as visitors rent boats, shop, and frequent hotels. It’s why 150 San Juan Island businesses and the local chamber signed a letter encouraging President Obama to heal the divide and exercise his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act. With a pen stroke, the president could make whole a majestic, longed-for National Monument.

Why is executive action paramount? Without national-monument protection, these lands are at risk for eco-unfriendly development or even getting yanked from public ownership.

Rep. Larsen and Gov. Chris Gregoire have written the Obama Administration, imploring the president to seize the initiative and apply the Antiquities Act, as a broad-spectrum groundswell continues to grow. The fire, it seems, has been lit.

Timing — the first axiom of politics — is propitious. Sept. 9, some three days after the Democratic National Convention, will mark the 46th anniversary of the San Juan Island National Historical Park Act. President Obama could memorialize this anniversary in a meaningful, concrete way, conserving one of the Pacific Northwest’s last remaining wild places for future generations.

The president knows from reading Ecclesiastes that there is “a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” There is also a time to act, and it’s right now.