Obama creates new National Monument, GOP tries to strip him of that power

  • Published on May 26th, 2014

By Meteor Blades

President Theodore Roosevelt designated the first National Monument, Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, in 1906. It was the first of 138 such designations by 16 presidents. Last week, President Barack Obama signed the most recent designation, the Organ Pipe Desert Peaks National Monument of New Mexico, 496,000 acres of the southern Rockies. If Republicans had their way, Obama’s—and every future president’s—authority under the Antiquities Act to designate National Monuments or expand old ones would be sharply limited.

Two months ago today, the House of Representatives voted 222-201 (with three Democrats voting aye) on HR 1459 to gut the act by transferring authority for most such designations into the hands of Congress under the “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act (EPIC).” The historical record of congressional belligerence regarding the setting aside of public land for special protection, as well as today’s privatization mania, mean such designations likely would be few if EPIC became law.

It was a Congress reluctant to set aside public lands that led to the Antiquities Act in the first place. Legislation to establish National Parks failed repeatedly in the 19th Century. Faced with vandalism in the archaeologically rich Southwest where the remains of ancient indigenous culture was thick on the land, the head of General Land Office, William Richards, wrote the secretary of the interior in 1904: “What is needed is a general enactment, empowering the President to set apart, as national parks, all tracts of public land which … it is desirable to protect and utilize in the interest of the public.”

It was a fight, but eventually, with compromise and loosely worded constraints, the Antiquities Act was passed with protection of some of those unique sites in mind. The act authorizes the president to set aside National Monuments by executive decree. In many cases, the Grand Canyon being a prime example, designated National Monuments were upgraded to National Parks when a more willing Congress was seated. Among the National Parks that might not exist had they not been first decreed to be National Monuments: Grand Teton, Bryce, Zion, Acadia (Maine), Olympic. This upgrading  is one reason why today there are only 109 areas designated as National Monuments. A few others have been turned over to states or decommissioned altogether.

Organ Mountains

A view in the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument, 496,000 acres in the
southern Rockies designated by President Obama this month.

Twice, presidential powers under the act have been reduced. When President Franklin Roosevelt designated Jackson Hole as a National Monument in 1943, Wyoming Sen. Edward Robertson called it a “foul, sneaking, Pearl Harbor blow.” The designation led to a law that grudgingly incorporated Jackson Hole into an enlarged Grand Teton National Park in 1950. But that law also amended the Antiquities Act, requiring congressional consent for new or enlarged National Monuments in Wyoming.

Then, after Jimmy Carter designated 55,800,000 acres of National Monuments in Alaska, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed. It requires congressional ratification of the use of the Antiquities Act in Alaska for National Monuments larger than 5,000 acres. If EPIC ever got through the Senate and was signed by the president, neither of which will happen, at least not until after January 21, 2017, the 5,000-acre limitation would be extended to the entire United States.

Carter’s designations were bracketed by the presidencies of three men—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—who designated zero new National Monuments. But President Bill Clinton turned that around, setting aside 19 of them, a presidential record. One of those, the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah designated in 1996, spurred Utahns into a fury. One of those was Rob Bishop, now a is Republican representative from the state and author of EPIC.

The bill also limits how many monuments a president can propose and mandate local communities to study the environmental impact of the monument status.

Had there been no Antiquities Act, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how many areas might now have fallen to the developers of various sorts. Muir Woods National Monument might be a flooded reservoir, for example. Just as there were politicians then who thought Muir Woods and the Grand Canyon and Jackson Hole should be open to the exploitation by private interests, today we have a Congress full of men and women eager to keep more land from being protected, and, indeed, who would love to remove protections from public land already designated. Gutting the Antiquities Act would give them an edge.

Below are the 10 other National Monuments President Obama has designated as National Monuments.

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