President Joe Biden kicked off a four-day western swing Wednesday by traveling to Camp Hale in Colorado to designate a World War II training ground site as a national monument and move to pause new mineral, oil and gas leasing in the protected area.
The President signed a proclamation establishing the 53,804-acre Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument. While Biden has expanded some existing national monuments since becoming president, Wednesday marks the first time the President has used the 1906 Antiquities Act to create a national monument since taking office.
At the camp in Vail, Colorado, Biden called national monuments “treasures and wonders that define the identity of us as a nation.”
“They’re a birthright that we pass down from generation to generation. And they unite us – and that’s what today is all about. We’re doing it not just for today but for all the ages,” he said. “And it’s for the people of Colorado, but it’s also goes well beyond the people of Colorado. It’s for all the people across America and the world. It’s a permanent, permanent decision, an action that no future president can overturn.”
Biden said the Colorado lands “tell a story of America,” acknowledging that tribal nations have, for thousands of years, “been stewards of this sacred land, hunting game, foraging for medicinal plants and maintaining a deep spiritual bond with the land itself.”
Making Camp Hale a national monument will protect the site from development. The designation, the official said, will also “support jobs and America’s outdoor recreation economy.”
Camp Hale, which is located in part of the ancestral homelands of the Ute Tribes, served as a training site for the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division before their deployment to the Italian Alps in World War II. Soldiers trained in rugged terrain, learning how to ski, climb and snowshoe in the Rocky Mountains before traveling to fight in the war. Many soldiers returned to the area after the war to help develop the local ski industry.
Additionally, the President announced that the administration is tapping into funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to mitigate the impacts of drought in the Colorado River Basin. And the US Department of the Interior is announcing it is moving to pause new mineral leasing or oil and gas leasing in the newly protected area.
Colorado’s Thompson Divide hasn’t been available to oil and gas leasing for several years and there’s no current or planned future oil exploration in the area, the department said in a news release. Natural gas leases already established in the area would be unaffected by the move, but they make up less than 1% of Colorado’s overall federal oil and gas leases.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will also move to block new mining leases in the nearly 225,000-acre area. That step will need to go through a public comment period before it is finalized.
Speaking about the leases, Biden said on Wednesday “that there’s no current or planned oil exploration production in the area. We’re just keeping things as they’ve been for a long time … while we study whether we can get this done.”
Colorado Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis joined the President at the event along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory, and additional local and tribal leaders.
One year ago, Biden announced the expansion of three existing national monuments – Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine – in a move that restored protections that had been undone by then-President Donald Trump. At the time, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said his state’s national monuments were being used as a “political football.”
Some Coloradans have opposed Biden’s executive moves to expand federal protections, saying it could prevent future energy exploration. Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, whose district includes the Thompson Divide, and other GOP members of Congress sent a letter to Biden opposing the President’s actions.
Colorado Democrats have pressed the White House to take the step in order to preserve an area of environmental and historical significance. Designating Camp Hale has been a key priority for Bennet, who faces a competitive race for reelection next month.
After visiting Vail, Biden is slated to make stops in Los Angeles and Orange County in California, as well as Portland, Oregon. During the four-day trip, the President will participate in a mix of official presidential events and fundraisers.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Ella Nilsen and DJ Judd contributed to this report.