Monuments caught in the crosshairs

Will Clinton’s designations crumble under Republican attacks?

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When George Bush and Dick Cheney stumped for the presidency, they vowed to increase oil and gas exploration on public lands and to rollback newly designated monuments.

Environmentalists cringed.

But in the administration's early days, it seemed that campaign rhetoric might prove an empty promise, as lawmakers were reluctant to jump on the Bush bandwagon. When last December Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, offered his support as head of the House Resources Committee to "deal with these millions of acres of new designations which circumvented the public process and the legislative process," there weren't many takers.

Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., declined Hansen's offer of assistance, saying that Clinton did nothing untoward in his designation of Tent Rocks National Monument in New Mexico. Udall says that in his district, "(former) Secretary Babbitt worked with the congressional delegation, pueblos and the public to build consensus," and that Hansen was "just throwing red meat to his constituents."

But now the conservative rhetoric is coalescing into strategy as Western Republicans wage war on multiple fronts. Defenders of Clinton's 19 new monuments are bracing for a long four years.

Strategies emerge

Already one piece of legislation that would affect an existing monument seems destined for congressional vote. The House Resources Committee has endorsed a bill by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, that would reintroduce hunting in the expanded portions of Craters of the Moon National Monument in his home state. Because it appears that the Clinton administration never intended to ban hunting, a prior use of the land, environmentalists have not put up a fight.

Western Republicans are also trying to amend the process by which national monuments are created. Simpson is drafting a National Monument Fairness Act to mandate greater congressional and state involvement in the designation of monuments larger than 50,000 acres. "We're not trying to undermine the Antiquities Act," he says, "but Congress needs to be involved in these decisions."

Interior Secretary Gale Norton echoed and amplified Hansen's and Simpson's efforts with letters to state officials that asked, "Are there boundary adjustments that the department should be considering? Are there existing uses inside these monuments that we should accommodate?"

Environmentalists worry that the Bush administration could bypass the legislative process altogether to undo some of the land protections currently afforded by national monument status. Though Norton has said her intervention will stop short of repealing Clinton's monuments, Melanie Griffin, public-lands director of the Sierra Club, says, "You don't have to undesignate a monument to destroy it."

Monument defenders say the administration is manipulating fears of an impending energy crisis to garner support for changes in land protections. Vice President Cheney and Interior officials are drafting an energy plan that looks to remove drilling and exploration restrictions on protected federal lands. In a separate U.S. Geological Survey report commissioned by the House Resources Committee, six Western monuments designated by the Clinton administration, including Grand Staircase-Escalante and Canyons of the Ancients (see page 4), were listed as containing a "moderate to high probability" of coal, gas or oil reserves.

"They're using the energy issues as an excuse to open public lands to exploitation and decrease environmental protection," says Faith Weiss of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Clinton's presidential proclamations establishing the new monuments withdraw the lands from any new mineral, gas or oil leasing. But the Bush administration has staked out the legal position that the president retains the authority to revise these protections. In a motion to dismiss a case that calls for a repeal of six of Clinton's monuments, brought last year by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Bush administration maintains that the president holds the right to both designate and modify national monuments.

If Bush or Norton act to shrink the monuments or alter management plans to allow for drilling, the courts may be called upon to clarify whether such actions are legal. Jim Angell of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund says there has never been any lawsuit brought over changes to national monuments.

"There's very little law on this issue," he says. "The new argument is emerging that basically the president can do whatever he wants."

Kirsten Bovee is an HCN intern.

YOU CAN ...

  • Read the USGS appraisal of coal, oil and gas resources in national monuments at www.house.gov/ resources/press;
  • See the Energy Task Force draft report at www.wilderness.org/newsroom.
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