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Critics are saying the legislation is a "radical attempt to undermine the Antiquities Act, which is really one of our nation’s most important conservation tools."
WASHINGTON — A federal law that has enabled presidents since Theodore Roosevelt to set aside culturally significant sites and wilderness landscapes for special protection would see sweeping changes under a bill that a U.S. House panel is set to discuss this week.
The legislation would limit the size of future national monuments and change the designation criteria so the sites cannot be established to only protect natural terrain. It would also give state and local elected leaders new power over the approval process of certain larger-sized monuments.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the legislation, which would rework the Antiquities Act of 1906.
“The Act is too often used as an excuse for presidents to unilaterally lock up vast tracts of public land without any mechanism for people to provide input or voice concerns,” Bishop said in a statement. “This is wrong.” His committee is scheduled to mark up the bill on Wednesday.
Conservation groups strongly oppose the legislation. They characterize it as a threat to a legal framework that has been used to help preserve millions of acres of public lands. And they argue that there have been ample opportunities for public input with recent designations.
“This is a drastic and radical attempt to undermine the Antiquities Act, which is really one of our nation’s most important conservation tools,” said Dan Hartinger, deputy director of parks and public lands defense for The Wilderness Society.
Bishop is known as an outspoken critic of how the Antiquities Act has been used previously—especially by former President Barack Obama. The congressman's move to introduce the legislation follows a controversial review of national monuments that President Trump ordered earlier this year.
National monuments include places that range from the 22-acre Governors Island National Monument in New York Harbor, to the roughly 210,000 acre Dinosaur National Monument, located mostly in Colorado, and the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
Monuments are created on federal public lands and do not involve the U.S. government taking over private property. The designations remain sensitive in part because they can mean restrictions on certain uses, such as mining, logging and oil and gas drilling. Monuments can also inflame tensions over federal, as opposed to state or local, control of land.
Bishop’s legislation would impose an 85,000-acre maximum size limit on new monuments.
For new monuments between 10,000 and 85,000 acres, county elected leaders, the state legislature and the governor in the places where the sites would be located would have to approve the monument designation in order for it to proceed.
The bill also specifies that “objects” eligible for protection under the Antiquities Act would not include “natural geographic features” or other items and artifacts not made by humans. There are exemptions for fossils and skeletal remains.
“I think people are going to fixate on the acreage limitations,” said The Wilderness Society’s Hartinger. He noted that those limitations are extreme in his view. But he added: “Redefining what an antiquity is would have even more far-reaching implications.”
He said Theodore Roosevelt would not have been allowed to designate Devils Tower under the standards proposed in the bill. The 867-foot rock formation in Wyoming was the first national monument formed under the Antiquities Act.
Kabir Green, senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s land and wildlife program, pointed out that future marine monuments, covering ocean waters, would appear to be blocked by the bill, which says the term “land” does not include submerged land or water.
Four marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean—Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll and Papahanaumokuakea—encompass over 330,000 square miles of water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Bishop’s bill also spells out that presidents have the authority to cut national monuments in size by 85,000 acres or less.
And it says that they can slice away larger chunks, if the reductions in size meet certain environmental review requirements and are approved by the county government, state legislature and governor in locations where the monuments are located.
Bishop has previously taken the position that Trump has the power to rescind national monuments designated by his predecessors. No previous president has tried to do this. And some legal experts say the authority to abolish or downsize monuments lies with Congress.
“He’s basically admitting that the president does not currently have the authority to repeal or shrink monuments,” said Jen Ujifusa, legislative director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, referring to Bishop and the monument size-reduction provisions in his legislation.
Five Republicans who chair Natural Resources subcommittees released statements Tuesday signaling support for Bishop’s bill. Each of them are cosponsors of the legislation.
“The Constitution gives to Congress alone the jurisdiction over public lands,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, of California, who leads the subcommittee on federal lands.
Rep. Paul Gosar, of Arizona, who chairs the subcommittee on energy and mineral resources echoed that view: “Regardless of political affiliation, presidents on either side of the aisle shouldn’t be able to create massive new national monuments by executive fiat.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in a draft report to Trump produced as part of the monument review, recommended downsizing two marine monuments and at least four other sites in the western U.S. These sites included Grand Staircase-Escalante; Bears Ears, which is also in Utah; Gold Butte in Nevada; and Cascade-Siskiyou, which is mostly in Oregon.
The White House has yet to officially release Zinke’s report. But copies of the document leaked last month to news outlets.
On Wednesday, the House Natural Resources Committee is also set to discuss a resolution, sponsored by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who is an Arizona Democrat. The resolution, cosponsored by 26 other Democrats, calls for the Trump administration to provide lawmakers documents and other information related to the national monuments review.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.