PUBLIC LANDS:

GOP lawmakers seek to constrain White House on national monuments

Efforts to strip the Obama administration's authority to create new national monuments are gaining momentum in Congress as lawmakers continue to roll out bills aimed at protecting their states from what they view as a White House agenda to tie up large tracts of land.

Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) this morning became the latest to introduce a bill that would require congressional approval of any executive proposals to designate federal lands in the state as national monuments, according to an aide.

And on Tuesday, Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) rolled out a nearly identical proposal to protect his state from unilateral designations.

"Colorado has a rich supply of natural energy that if used responsibly can provide high paying jobs and reduce energy costs," Lamborn said in a statement. "It seems President Obama and [Interior] Secretary Salazar would rather lock up our valuable Western resources than help lower energy costs and create jobs."

Rehberg and Lamborn joined lawmakers from Utah, Nevada and California who have written nearly identical bills in response to an Interior memo leaked last month identifying 14 sites for potential addition to the National Landscape Conservation System, which includes more than 27 million acres of wilderness, conservation areas, rivers and monuments.

A national monument in Montana’s Northern Prairie would connect 2.5 million acres straddling the Canadian border that would “provide an opportunity to restore prairie wildlife and the possibility of establishing a new bison range,” the memo states. Such a designation would depend on conservation easements, willing sellers and withdrawal from the public domain, according to the document.

In northwest Colorado, the memo identifies the Vermillion Basin, a high desert area that provides critical wintering habitat for big game species and sage grouse, but which is also considered ripe for oil and gas development. The document also discusses the possible purchase of 25,000 acres of patented mining claims in the Alpine Triangle, a 150,000-acre special recreation management area in the San Juan Mountains, at an estimated cost of $37.5 million.

Republican lawmakers say such proposals, along with others covering an estimated 13 million acres in nine states, are evidence that the Obama administration wants to push energy development and other resource-extractive activities off of large swaths of public land. Other states with lands identified in the memo are Arizona, California, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R), a co-sponsor of the Colorado bill, said the legislation "will help ensure that any decision to further restrict access to valuable natural resources is done so with the full input and knowledge of the people of Colorado."

More states on the way?

Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona (R) and Alaska’s Rep. Don Young (R) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) are also considering bills to protect federal lands from executive monument designations, according to aides.

Matthew Specht, Flake's chief of staff, yesterday confirmed that the congressman plans to introduce legislation that would impose the same restrictions on national monument designations as the other recent bills.

"The impact of these designations in the West is enormous," said Flake. "There needs to be adequate discussion and debate before the federal government takes the step to designate more land as national monuments."

Flake and Young were among 16 Western lawmakers who wrote a letter last week to Salazar demanding a complete copy of the leaked memo. The original leaked documents were labeled as pages 15 to 21. The lawmakers also asked for all documents and communications regarding the department's plan to compile a list of potential designations, including maps and any communications with individuals and groups outside the Interior Department (Greenwire, Feb. 26).

"We were distressed to learn from an internal 'NOT FOR RELEASE' document that deliberations regarding potential National Monument designation sites and 'high priority land-rationalization efforts' were taking place within the Department of Interior without public knowledge or participation," the lawmakers wrote.

Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the memo was nothing more than a "brainstorming" session and that no maps had been drafted of proposed sites. She said the agency was still reviewing the lawmakers' letter, but no decision had been made over whether any remaining documents would be turned over by the March 26 deadline called for by the lawmakers.

Calming tensions

Salazar has repeatedly said the agency has "no secret agenda," and he assured lawmakers again yesterday that the department is under no orders from the White House to designate new national monuments.

"There is no direction from the White House on any of this at the Department of Interior," he told senators at an Interior budget hearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "Zero, nada, nothing, OK? It isn't there."

Salazar said any proposals to designate new protected lands in the Interior West would be subject to a "bottom up" approach similar to the process used for including lands in the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act that added more than 1.2 million acres to the NLCS.

"That's a template we ought to be using," Salazar testified.

Salazar's view is echoed in the leaked memo's opening paragraph, which states that any new national monument designations should follow an assessment of public and congressional support.

"It is important for us as a department to work with people like Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah to come up with places where we can in fact come up with partnerships with states and local governments," Salazar said. He noted that more than 2 million acres of land is lost every year in the United States to development.

But some lawmakers remained skeptical.

Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R) said he remembered similar guarantees given by Clinton administration officials after the Washington Post published reports indicating the White House was considering designating what would become Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996.

"[Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt] assured me just as much as you have assured the committee here today that this was just preliminary and that there was no decision about to be made," Bennett told Salazar.

Less than 48 hours later, Bennett recalled, he learned that President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were meeting at the Grand Canyon to announce the designation. The Grand Staircase-Escalante monument was created later that day with no federal consultation with local or state officials, Bennett said.

"When you have that kind of experience, you begin to get a little suspicious," he told Salazar.

Next steps

The five House bills that have been introduced have or will likely be assigned to the Natural Resources Committee, though none contains bipartisan sponsorship. A bill introduced in the Senate by Bennett and fellow Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) was assigned to the chamber's Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop (R), ranking member of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, said it makes sense that other Western states should have the same exemption from unilateral national monument designations as Wyoming was granted in a 1950 amendment to the Antiquities Act.

"If Wyoming is exempt, it makes practical sense to let everybody else be exempted as well," he said.

But House committee chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.V.) said the Antiquities Act has been an important asset for presidents ever since Theodore Roosevelt used it to protect the Grand Canyon, and that attempts to paint it as a tool for federal land grabs are disingenuous.

“The Antiquities Act only allows designation of land that is already federally owned,” he said in an emailed statement. “These designations should not be taken lightly and should not move forward without public input, but national monuments should not be demonized or mischaracterized just to score some political points.”

Bishop, when asked if he thinks the bills have enough support to pass, demurred. "It is common sense, which means it probably won't be heard by this Congress," he said.

Click here to read the leaked Interior memo.

Click here to read the Western lawmakers' letter.