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Know the West

In Congress, an effort to curtail national monuments

Any monument larger than a square mile would require additional review.


On Oct. 11, the House Natural Resources Committee approved a proposal from its chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to overhaul the Antiquities Act. Bishop’s “National Monument Creation and Protection Act” would severely constrain the power of the president to designate national monuments. It would limit the size of monuments a president could designate as well as the kinds of places protected.

The 1906 Antiquities Act allows a president to act swiftly to protect federal lands facing imminent threats without legislation getting bogged down in Congress. Many popular areas, including Zion, Bryce and Arches national parks in Bishop’s home state, were first protected this way.

Under Bishop’s legislation, any proposal for a monument larger than 640 acres — one square mile — would be subject to a review process: Areas up to 10,000 acres would be subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act, while those between 10,000 and 85,000 acres would require approval from state and local government. The bill would allow emergency declarations, but they would expire after a year without congressional approval. It would also codify the president’s power to modify monuments — a power that has been contested in light of the Interior Department’s recent recommendations that President Donald Trump reduce the size of several monuments, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. 

These colorful rock strata near the Paria River are protected as part of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante, a monument that Rep. Rob Bishop and other Utah legislators strongly oppose. In its recent review, the Interior Department recommended shrinking the monument.
Rebecca Worby

Originally established to protect archaeological sites from vandalism and looting, the Antiquities Act has since been used to protect a broad range of areas for a broad range of purposes. For example, President Bill Clinton designated Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon to preserve biodiversity. By contrast, Hanford Reach, the first national monument managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, not only preserves a sweeping desert landscape, but also holds remnants of atomic history, including plutonium reactors in the process of being dismantled.

Bishop’s bill, however, would prohibit new landscape-scale monuments by replacing the phrase “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” with the more restrictive “object or objects of antiquity.” That term, the bill further specifies, does not include “natural geographic features.” Bishop maintains that these changes would restore the act to its original intent. “Any honest reading reveals that it was created to protect ‘landmarks,’ ‘structures,’ and ‘objects,’” he wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, “not vast swaths of land.”

President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the act into law and designated the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908, did not feel that way. Though the Grand Canyon was of course later turned into a treasured park, its designation spurred the first of many battles in Congress over the size of monuments designated under the act, which stipulates that they should be the “smallest area compatible” with protection.

Two of those tussles limited the power of the president under the Antiquities Act. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Jackson Hole a monument in 1943; a 1950 law made the monument part of Grand Teton National Park — and added an amendment to the Antiquities Act stating that all future monument designations in Wyoming must go through Congress. President Jimmy Carter’s creation of 56 million acres of monuments in Alaska led to an act that requires congressional approval for monuments larger than 5,000 acres in that state.

In recent years, controversy over the Antiquities Act has been centered in Utah. The state’s legislators balked at Clinton’s 1996 designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — a vast swath of land. In the years that followed, Utah Republican Senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett and Utah Rep. Jim Hansen introduced bills that would limit the Antiquities Act. None of them made it through Congress.

Bishop has introduced legislation to overhaul the Antiquities Act multiple times before, including the “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act” in 2013. But he is just one part of a larger Republican push to lessen federal control of public lands. As High Country News reported earlier this year, many of the Utah legislators now going after monuments had long been focused on transferring federal lands to state control. Attacking the Antiquities Act is another way of undermining federal land management.

Groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council, an advocacy group for ranchers who rely on public lands, applauded Bishop’s bill. It “would ensure local ranchers and communities are not subject to the whims of an unchecked federal government,” Craig Uden, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a press release. Meanwhile, many environmental and recreation groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and the Outdoor Industry Association, have voiced opposition. Sharon Buccino, director of the Land and Wildlife program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the bill “the most aggressive attack ever waged on America’s national parks and monuments.”

Many Democrats and conservationists hope the legislation will stall in the House, where a vote has not yet been scheduled. But as long as Republicans opposed to federal control of public lands hold sway, the Antiquities Act and the millions of acres it protects will remain in the crosshairs.

Rebecca Worby is an editorial fellow at High Country News.