President Obama has just issued an executive order to create two new national monuments in Utah and Nevada, protecting a total of 1.65 million acres of land from development.
The order hopes to protect sacred and archaeologically important Native American sites, wildlife habitats, hiking trails, and hunting grounds.
"Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures, including abundant rock art, archaeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes," Obama said in a statement from The White House.
"Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes."
The executive action comes only weeks after an oil spill near the location of the Standing Rock protesters were fighting to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatened to destroy sacred land belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
"A faulty pipeline has leaked 176,000 gallons of crude oil into a creek and the surrounding countryside 2.5 hours away from the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota.
The spill, which went undetected by the pipeline owners until a local stumbled on it, has spread almost 7 km (5.4 miles) from the site of the leak, and at this stage, it’s not clear what caused the pipe to rupture, or how long it’s been leaking."
The two new monuments – one covering 1.35 million acres around Bears Ears Buttes in southeastern Utah and the other covering 300,000 acres around Gold Butte in Nevada, which lies northeast of Las Vegas – will hopefully stop similar accidents in the future, reports Coral Davenport at The New York Times.
Obama was able to create the monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows him to protect areas of historic importance.
In fact, both of the newly designated monuments have been proposed for a while now. According to Davenport, the government has been trying to make the area around Bears Ears Buttes federally protected since 1936 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, and Native American tribes have been asking for protection around Gold Butte since 2008.
Not everyone is on board with the changes, though.
"President Obama’s unilateral decision to invoke the Antiquities Act in Utah politicises a long-simmering conflict," Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz from Utah told The New York Times.
"The midnight move is a slap in the face to the people of Utah, attempting to silence the voices of those who will bear the heavy burden it imposes."
Meanwhile, Native American tribes and environmentalists are applauding the action in both states – which covers land of importance to five different Native American tribes.
"This is an exciting day for Navajo Nation. We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and plants and as a place of sacredness," said Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye.
"It is a place of safety and fortitude. It is a place where our ancestors hid and survived from US cavalry during the Long War."
Besides protecting the land for Native American tribes, the move will also protect the wildlife and archaeologically important sites found within the monuments.
This isn’t the first time the current administration has made moves like this, either.
Back in September, President Obama created the first Atlantic-based marine monument – an area called ‘an underwater Yellowstone' – off the coast of Cape Cod Massachusetts, which protects 12,724 square kilometres (4,913 square miles) of ocean.
Similarly, the administration also extended the reach of Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument back in August, which extended the protected area by 1,146,797 square kilometres (442,781 square miles), bringing the total coverage up to 1,508,870 square kilometres (582,578 square miles).
For his efforts in Hawaii, a newly discovered tropical fish now bear’s the president’s name.
Legal efforts will likely follow the newly created monuments as officials move to repeal them. Only time will tell if they will continue on as the current administration intends them to.