A bill has been introduced in the U.S. House that would greatly restrict presidential authority under the Antiquities Act.
The act, passed in 1906, allows the president to create a national monuments on existing federal lands by proclamation.
The bill’s lead sponsor, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in a Wednesday teleconference that the bill is meant to ensure “transparency” in the monument designation process.
Former President Barack Obama used the act 29 times, drawing rebuke from Bishop and other critics of the act. But Bishop claimed it had been abused by presidents of both parties.
“Congress unintentionally granted broad powers to the president, and it has been abused by presidents of both parties,” Bishop said.
Rep. Raúl Labrador cast a vote in favor of the bill in committee. Rep. Mike Simpson’s office didn’t immediately say what his position on the bill is.
But critics, both from the left and right, say Bishop’s bill would gut the Antiquities Act and prevent it from being used to protect natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon and Craters of the Moon.
The bill would allow presidents to designate national monuments under the existing process of a size of no more than 640 acres, and only if they are at least 50 miles from the nearest monument. For monuments of up to 5,000 acres, an environmental review would have to be conducted, which involves a public comment process. Monuments of up to 10,000 acres would require a more extensive review.
Monuments larger than 10,000 acres could be no larger than 85,000 acres, and would require approval of every county commission, state legislature and governor in the area of the monument.
But presidents could reduce the size of any monument by 85,000 acres with no public input. Larger reductions would require public input and approval.
According to a news release, the bill passed out of committee Wednesday, though no roll call was available by press time. No companion legislation had been introduced in the Senate. Bishop said it would be supported by “anyone with a brain” there.
“(This) is the only vehicle that ensures transparency,” he said.
Bishop said his bill would restore the original intent of the act. It would remove a section of the bill. Under Bishop’s bill, only man-made artifacts could qualify an area for Antiquities Act designation, except for fossils, which would also count. It specifically excludes “natural geographic features,” the main feature of most national monuments.
But David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship and a former staffer for Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., called Bishop’s bill “extremely radical,” even “crazy.”
“He doesn’t see any value in nature,” Jenkins said of Bishop.
Jenkins said Bishop’s bill would destroy the intent of a century-old Republican achievement. Republican icon President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Antiquities Act into law, used it to designate sites of natural beauty.
“He used it to protect the Grand Canyon, which is almost 1,300 square miles. … It wouldn’t be able to be protected under this bill. That’s how extreme it is,” Jenkins said.
That would also be the case for Craters of the Moon, noted Dani Mazzotta, central Idaho director of the Idaho Conservation League.
“Craters of the Moon has incredible scientific value because of the uniqueness of that landscape,” she said. “That’s what qualifies it under the Antiquities Act to be a national monument.”
Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, called the bill “an attack on the legacy of the West.”
“If this bill had been in place for the last century instead of the Antiquities Act, we wouldn’t have the Grand Canyon, we wouldn’t have Arches, we wouldn’t have Craters,” she said.
An earlier review of public comments related to Craters found near-universal opposition to any reduction in the monument. After comments were received, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke removed Craters from his review list, noting that opposition to reductions was indeed nearly universal.
In the area around Craters, there is widespread support for converting Craters into a national park in an effort to drive more tourism to small towns that face dire economic straits.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.