WASHINGTON – Citing state sovereignty and economic hardship, Republican lawmakers said Tuesday that they wanted to give Congress the authority to veto presidents’ national monument designations, a power used by nearly every executive since Theodore Roosevelt.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 has led to the designations of 136 national monuments, a list that includes the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest in Arizona and the Statue of Liberty in New York.
But the act has long has been a flash point in Western states, where some residents and officials resent the federal government’s level of involvement in land management.
“I don’t oppose public lands,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said Tuesday at a House of Representatives Natural Resources subcommittee hearing. “I simply oppose efforts by an out-of-touch administration to forcibly lock up public lands without congressional oversight.”
Bills by Labrador; Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah; and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., would “prohibit the further extension or establishment of national monuments” in those states, “except by express authorization of Congress.”
Rep. Wally Herger, a Republican whose Northern California district contains a “significant amount” of federal land, made the economic argument for his bill, which would require congressional approval of a national monument in any state.
“In the face of severe economic challenges, we need to reform crippling government policies and regulations so that local communities can utilize their natural resources and prosper,” he said.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said her bill was about limiting the size and reach of government. Her legislation would require the approval of state legislatures and governors for the president to designate a national monument.
“Considering the size of the federal government’s existing real estate portfolio, there is no need to continue unilaterally acquiring new lands without any regard to states’ rights or economies,” Foxx said.
No one from the Obama administration appeared at the hearing, but the Interior Department submitted testimony opposing all six bills.
The Antiquities Act originally was intended to preserve lands with cultural or scientific value, and the Interior Department cited that purpose in its opposition to efforts to weaken the law.
“Though some national monuments have been established amidst controversy, who among us today would dam the Grand Canyon or turn Muir Woods over to development?” the department said in its testimony submitted to the House panel. “These sites are much-cherished landscapes which help to define the American spirit.”
Environmentalists said the effort by the Republican lawmakers was a one-sided conversation focused on exploiting natural resources.
“We’re only talking about resource extraction, we’re not talking about conservation,” said Bobby McEnaney, a land policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group. “I think we can respect the idea that Westerners have a say in these lands, but that’s not what these bills do. They favor one use of the land over other uses.”
McEnaney, an Idaho native, said that while mining, timber, oil and gas might generate jobs in the short term, people moved to Western states “for their natural beauty, not for oil rigs.”
“There’s a lot of angst about the Antiquities Act,” he said. “But every time monuments have been declared, the long-term impacts have proved quite positive.”
McEnaney cited the nearly 2 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah as a success. President Bill Clinton designated the area a national monument 15 years ago, fearing the impact of a large coal-mining operation.
While the move might have helped boost the tourism industry, some said it closed off economic opportunities.
“The state had no warning that this was coming, and once it was done we had no recourse,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, told the House panel Tuesday. “With the stroke of a pen, 500 high-paying jobs in a rural Utah county disappeared.”
The bills respond to outrage expressed throughout the West last year after an internal Interior Department memo was made public. The memo listed 14 sites in nine states that could be designated as national monuments. The plan was never formally proposed, but opponents said its existence showed the need to reform the law.
“This isn’t about preventing future monument designations. It’s about making sure those designations aren’t forced on people who frankly don’t want or need them,” Rehberg said.