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New national monuments threatened by House attack on Antiquities Act

 

When President Obama bestowed national monument status upon the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands — a 1,600-acre stretch of rocky California coast that teems with abalone and sea lions — earlier this month, the reaction was predictable as a high tide at full moon. While conservation groups rejoiced at the presidential protection, House Republicans snarled at what they considered egregious executive overreach. According to congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Obama’s decree was “purely political and undermines sincere efforts to reach consensus on questions of conservation.” To Bishop and his House peers, the monument designation was nothing but a federal land grab.

The designation of the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands as a national monuments has conservationists celebrating – and Republicans fuming. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

Now Bishop and other Republicans are seeking to restrict the president’s ability to declare national monuments through H.R. 1459, the “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act,” which will go to the House floor for vote on Wednesday. The bill, which Bishop sponsored back in July, would limit the president to creating one national monument per state in each four-year term and require environmental reviews for all monuments larger than 5,000 acres – gumming up the executive branch’s ability to swiftly conserve lands. The left-leaning Center for American Progress calls H.R. 1459 a de facto “No More National Parks” policy.

The executive power to create monuments derives from the Antiquities Act of 1906, a piece of legislation that’s no stranger to controversy. The Act has been used by every president since Theodore Roosevelt to conserve some 70 million total acres, including many of America’s iconic landscapes, from the Grand Canyon to Death Valley to Utah’s Bryce and Zion. Though those sites are now among our best-loved parks, monument proclamations have often been greeted with congressional fury at the time of their announcement. When Franklin Roosevelt established Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, Wyoming Sen. Edward Robertson called it a "foul, sneaking, Pearl Harbor blow.” (Bishop’s rhetoric has been mild by comparison – the worst he’s said is that President Obama “punked” the House. Evoking Ashton Kutcher isn’t quite as inflammatory as comparing the POTUS to Emperor Hirohito, but times change.)

Of course, the reason Congress has spent so much effort trying to rescind the Antiquities Act is precisely because it cuts the legislative branch out of the loop. Some might say that makes the Act unconstitutional – hi, Doc Hastings! – but, to others, that’s exactly why it’s indispensable in this era of congressional obstruction. Until it tabbed Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes this winter, Congress hadn’t created a single wilderness area since 2009, and it’s only designated one national park since 2004. If not for President Obama creating monuments at a respectable (albeit not quite Clintonian) pace, the last half-decade would’ve been a near-total wash for public lands protection.

Republicans love to talk about “public involvement” – heck, it’s right there in the name of the bill – but if they were truly paying attention to recent developments in the West, they’d know that the public wants more monuments. New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte, designated last April, has been instantly embraced by everyone from ranchers to Taos Pueblo tribal officials, thanks largely to the 300 jobs and $15 million in annual revenues that the monument is expected to generate. (That’s typical: while conservative leaders enjoy grumbling about the cost of maintaining public lands, virtually all parks are powerful economic engines.) Another 2013 monument, in the San Juan Islands, was similarly popular. Meanwhile, designation for Colorado’s Browns Canyon is gaining momentum; check out Iraq War veteran Garett Reppenhagen’s recent op-ed on why public lands protection is about more than just money. (Though, okay, the economic engine thing is nice!)

Given the wide and growing imbalance between conservation and energy development on our public lands, it’s vital that Congress preserve the executive’s ability to swiftly protect America’s special places. Though H.R. 1459 would probably be D.O.A. in the Senate, let’s hope it doesn’t even get that far.

Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.