By MARSHA MERCER
From the maddeningly crammed streets and vulgar displays along the Virginia Beach oceanfront, it’s only a 40-minute drive to the peaceful and scenic Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Back Bay -- a 9,100-acre barrier island preserve of island marshes, maritime forests and pristine beaches – was established by President Franklin Roosevelt by proclamation in 1938 as a haven and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.
More than 120,000 people visit the refuge every year, most to watch the 10,000 snow geese and ducks that fly over Back Bay during the peak of the winter migration. Even in the off season, though, there’s plenty to see. Herons and snowy egrets pose majestically. Turtles sun themselves on log rivieras and snakes, naturally, slither.
On the Blue Goose Express, an open air tram, local history buff Bob Baxter leads visitors back in time. A century ago, the area was dotted with duck hunting lodges, visited by wealthy industrialists. Life-saving stations every seven miles along the coast plucked unfortunate mariners from the sea.
We take a short hike to historic Wash Woods in False Cape State Park, which adjoins Back Bay. All that remains of the remote community of farmers, fishermen and hunters and a church that seated 300 worshippers are the steeple and about a dozen tombstones under whispering live oaks.
About 47 million people will flee urban noise and stress for the tranquility of national refuges this year.
Visitors will savor birdsong and unspoiled scenery; they’ll take pictures, swim and camp.
Few may think about how important presidents have been in keeping our wild spaces in citizens’ hands.
Since Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, presidents have played a crucial role in conservation.
“I will do everything in my power to protect . . . great natural beauties of this country,” vowed Theodore Roosevelt, who enjoyed being president because he liked having “my hand on the lever.”
The 26th president set aside 230 million acres in public land and created 150 national forests, 51 bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks and 18 national monuments.
He left his successors the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president or Congress the power to designate national monuments. The president can act unilaterally.
He’s no TR, but Obama still could leave a conservation legacy.
“I’ve preserved more than 3 million acres of public lands for future generations. And I am not finished,”
Obama said May 21 when he used the Antiquities Act to create the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, protecting half a million acres in New Mexico.
But the congressional resistance Obama faces extends even to conservation. Dozens of bills that would protect lands and wildlife are stalled in Congress.
In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed rules to regulate oil and gas production on the national refuge system. Yes, more than 200 wildlife refuges have existing oil and gas infrastructure and 100 have active oil and gas wells.
The government owns the land but not the oil and gas mineral rights beneath the ground, and the government lacks the authority to regulate private oil and gas development on the refuges. That’s why it has proposed rules.
Noah Matson, vice president of Lands Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife, warned a House panel May 20 of instances on wildlife refuges of oil drums oozing toxic chemicals, oil-topped open waste ponds, abandoned storage tanks and rusted, leaking oil pipes “fixed” with plastic bags and duct tape.
Two Louisiana Republicans on the committee blasted Matson for his “emotional” testimony and for failing to credit the “innovative” fixes.
Republicans also want to curb presidential power under the Antiquities Act, which presidents of both parties have used. Obama has used the act 11 times, starting in November 2011 with the Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Va.
The House voted in March to limit the president’s power to designate monuments, requiring reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. The bill has little chance in the current Senate because the Democratic majority is opposed.
When signing the order designating Organ Mountains a national monument, Obama said he understands “our obligation to be good stewards to the next generation – to make sure that our children’s children get the same chance to experience all of these natural wonders.”
He needs to follow TR’s lead, keep his hand on the lever and follow through on his conservation promises.
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.