On Thursday, President Barack Obama enacted a flurry of national monument designations. They range from preserving Martin Luther King, Jr.’s former headquarters in Alabama to more than tripling one protected area on California’s coast. A vocal group of Congressional Republicans has protested Obama’s monument designations for quite some time, framing the issue as one of local versus federal land control. A bill that’s in committee right now would undo the 111-year-old Antiquities Act, taking the power to create national monuments away from the president and keeping federal lands and waters open to oil and gas exploration.
Unlike national parks, which Congress designates, national monuments may be created by the president. For a visitor exploring an ancient archaeological site in Colorado or counting sea stars in a California tide pool, that distinction hardly matters. Likewise, in Obama’s newly established Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, some plants and animals adapted to mountain climates are hanging on in a warming world. They are seeking out refugia—from cooler stretches of mountain streams to shady patches of northern slopes—without any awareness of human concerns with legal designations.
In Congress, though, things are never so simple. A bill introduced on Jan. 6 by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would amend the Antiquities Act, completely changing the way that national monuments are created. It’s called the Improved National Monument Designation Process Act, Senate Bill 437, and it is part of a broader movement against federal land management among some Republican lawmakers.
In a press release, bill sponsors pointed out that Obama has designated more national monuments by area than any other president. While a previous version of the bill had three cosponsors, the current version has 25, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has referred to such designations as “unjustified federal land grabs.”
With the Jan. 12 designations, Obama has added almost 568 million acres of national monuments to his legacy. Notably, almost 96.5 percent of that has been in the water, where marine areas are off-limits to oil extraction. In one case, by expanding former President George W. Bush’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean, Obama created one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world.
Under Murkowski’s proposed bill, a president would no longer be able to designate new monuments by executive action, as he currently can do under the Antiquities Act. Instead, an act of Congress would be required, as is already the case in Wyoming.
Though monuments are designated on existing federal lands or waters, any states in which the planned national monument was located also would have to give approval before the monument’s creation. And a proposed monument would have to undergo a detailed review under the National Environmental Policy Act to determine what, if any, negative environmental effects creating the monument might have.
According to the bill, the creation of marine national monuments within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. coast would require not only an act of Congress, but also approval by all states and territories within 100 nautical miles of the new monument. Like a land-based national monument under the new bill, a marine monument would require a NEPA review.
But bill sponsors also added an additional step for oceanic designations: Even if a marine national monument were created, no use restrictions could be mandated there until after a public review period. Even then, restricting any uses—including drilling for oil—would require further Congressional approval.
Murkowski said in a statement that Obama’s monument designations have “routinely come with complete disregard for local concerns and opposition, threatening energy, mining, fishing, ranching, recreation, and other reasonable uses of public land and waters.”
Presidents have had the power to create national monuments since the passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act, signed by Teddy Roosevelt. The Antiquities Act was motivated by archaeologists and land stewards concerned with how the country’s cultural resources were being damaged—sometimes by overzealous tourists, sometimes by prospectors in the business of selling old artifacts. Lawmakers believed that the nation’s archaeological and scientific heritage were public resources, too. While national parks preserve the nation’s open spaces for recreation and beauty, the Antiquities Act preserves places—some quite small—with historic, scientific, commemorative, or cultural value.
For example, the three newest national monuments on the east coast—announced in advance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations— will commemorate the nation’s African American history. Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, in Birmingham, Alabama, will protect Dr. King’s former headquarters. Freedom Riders National Monument, in Anniston, Alabama, will tell the story of Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights movement. And Reconstruction Era National Monument will curate the history of freed slaves who developed a robust community in Reconstruction Era South Carolina.
Other recent designations have included Obama’s .12-acre Stonewall Inn—the nation’s first LGBT historic site—and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, since reclassified a national historical park. Older ones include the Statue of Liberty, Muir Woods, and the Grand Canyon, since reclassified a national park.
Click on each dot for descriptions of the proposal. Since Dec. 28, Obama has designated an additional five monuments in the West. This map has been updated to highlight those proposals. Outside of the West, during Obama's waning days in office, he also designated three new monuments in the South on Jan. 12.
National monuments have more flexibility in their operations than national parks and may be run by the Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, or the Bureau of Land Management. Activities allowed in monuments vary: mining, oil extraction, grazing, hunting, and logging all occur in at least some national monuments. Monuments established by Obama have tended to continue activities important to local economies, including grazing. Wildlife management—including hunting and fishing—has stayed the same too. Generally, though, Obama’s national monuments become off-limits to new oil and gas exploration permits.
Despite protests to the contrary, at Bears Ears, national monument designation hasn’t changed current grazing permits, water rights, or fish or wildlife management. Likewise, Native tribes connected to Bears Ears will be able to keep collecting medicines, vegetation, firewood, and other products for personal use. In Gold Butte National Monument, grazing has not been allowed since 1998, a policy that will not change because of monument designation. Gold Butte’s monument designation won’t change existing hunting or fishing policies or water rights, or the rights of tribes in relationship to the area. Still, bill co-sponsors point to Bears Ears and Gold Butte National Monuments as examples of federal land grabs. In future, new fuel exploration permits won’t be allowed in either monument.
The bill currently is being considered by the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Murkowski.
Note: The press release for Senate Bill 437 states that President Obama has designated 554 million acres onshore and offshore as national monuments. We arrived at 568 million acres by adding together the acreage for new monuments that Obama established with the acreage that Obama added to existing monuments (not including original acreage) derived from this list.
We also added the acreage for Bears Ears National Monument, which we found in a U.S. Forest Service Fact Sheet, and the acreage for Gold Butte National Monument, which we found in its Presidential Proclamation. The 48,000-acre expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (derived from its Presidential Proclamation), and the acreage for the California Coastal National Monument expansion (6,230 more acres, from its Presidential Proclamation) did not significantly change our estimate.
Correction: The caption previously stated that California Coastal National Monument is a breeding ground for California sea lions. While the monument is sea lion habitat, the marine mammals in the photo are actually Harbor seals. It has also been updated to correct the acreage of the expanded California Coastal Monument in the caption.
Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor for High Country News.