More than a dozen pristine landscapes, wildlife habitats and scenic rivers in 11 Western states, some larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, are under consideration by the Obama administration to become America's newest National Monuments -- a decision the administration can make unilaterally without local input or congressional approval.
According to internal Department of Interior documents leaked to a Utah congressman and obtained exclusively by Fox News, the mostly public lands include Arizona deserts, California mountains, Montana prairies, New Mexico forests, Washington islands and the Great Basins of Nevada and Colorado -- totaling more than 13 million acres.
Sources say President Obama is likely to choose two or three sites from the list, depending on their size, conservation value and the development threat to each one's environment.
"Many nationally significant landscapes are worthy of inclusion in the NLCS (National Landscape Conservation System)," according to the draft report stamped NOT FOR RELEASE. "The areas listed below may be good candidates for National Monument designation and the Antiquities Act."
Presidential use of the Antiquities Act is highly controversial because the White House, with the stroke of a pen, can lock up thousands of square miles of federal lands used for timber, ranching, mining and energy development without local input or congressional approval. The Act is generally interpreted to commemorate or protect a specific historical landmark, not prohibit development or deprive local communities of jobs and tax revenues.
"Any federal action that could lead to limited access should be done in an open and public manner using extraordinary caution," said Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., upon seeing the leaked report. "The fact that this administration is already circulating internal memos to bypass Congress and the public process is troubling."
In 1996, President Clinton turned 1.3 million acres of southern Utah into the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument without telling the Arizona or Utah congressional delegation. Highly controversial at the time, the designation has withstood numerous legal challenges to the president's authority, and the national monument remains one of Clinton's boldest environmental accomplishments.
While Western politicians are still digesting the report, several properties stand out.
-- Otero Mesa, New Mexico: The area stretches over 1.2 million acres and is home to 1,000 native species. Gov. Bill Richardson has sought protection for Otero Mesa for years, but the Bush administration targeted it for oil and gas development.
-- Heart of the Great Basin, Nevada: Researchers call it a "globally unique assemblage of cultural, wildlife and historic values" that includes thousands of petroglyphs and stone artifacts dating back 12,000 years.
-- Owyhee Desert, Oregon: Called one of the most remote areas of the United States, the Owyhee is home to the largest herd of California bighorn sheep.
-- Bodie Hills, California: Located in the fast growing eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, Bodie contains the Golden State's best preserved ghost town. But the area is also loaded with gold, and several mining permits are pending.
-- The Modoc Plateau, California: Spanning close to 3 million acres in the northwest corner of California, the Modoc Plateau is "laden with biological and archeological treasures." Interior officials call it the second largest unprotected landscape in the state.
The list contains a number of political land mines for the president, according to a former Bush Interior Department appointee familiar with the document who asked to remain anonymous.
"Right now a number of senior officials are going over the report," he told Fox News. "When Clinton did it, most of the West was red states and he didn't have any blowback. Obama has to ask himself, if he chooses a Nevada location, will it hurt (Senator Harry) Reid's re-election. The same is true in almost every (Western) state where Democrats have made serious inroads."
The list was leaked just days after a story appeared in the New York Times outlining the administration's plans to use executive power to advance his agenda in the face of congressional opposition. "We are reviewing a list of presidential orders and directives to get the job done, across a front of issues," White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the newspaper.
Western representatives are planning a full-fledged assault on the report when Congress returns from its break next week.
Congressman Rob Bishop, R-Ut., co-founder of the Western States Coalition and now Chair of the Congressional Western Caucus, has also seen the leaked memo.
"We are taking this seriously. The tar is warming up. The pitchforks are ready. We will do what ever we need to make sure Congress is fully informed and fully aware of this action. This process should be open and transparent and President Obama should go though Congress and do it this the right way, not by presidential fiat," said Bishop.
"Outrage. In a country as dependent on foreign oil as this one, this kind of action on public lands is simply unacceptable."
Interior Department spokesman Craig Leff told Fox News late Wednesday the leaked document "reflects some brainstorming discussions within [the Bureau of Land Management], but no decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration."
William La Jeunesse joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in March 1998 and currently serves as a Los Angeles-based correspondent.