President Obama’s latest round of national monument designations today has sparked House Republicans to ramp up the rhetoric against a more-than-century-old law that allows presidents to bypass Congress and establish such protected areas.
House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) labeled as "shameful" today’s designations of the 704,000-acre Basin and Range National Monument in east-central Nevada and two other smaller sites in Texas and California. He vowed that his committee will "try and rectify" the broad powers that he said give presidents too much authority to permanently close off public lands through monument designations.
Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to bring to 19 the number of new monuments he has designated since 2009. Through executive actions, Obama has helped preserve more than 260 million acres of public lands and waters — more than any other president, according to the White House.
"We’re going to have to go in there and fix all the crap that this administration just did," Bishop told Greenwire today at the Capitol. "Because they don’t go through the process, they don’t think ahead, they don’t solve the problems ahead of time. All they do is make a political statement, and that’s what the Antiquities Act has become: an abusive political statement."
Among the unresolved issues for Bishop are whether the new monuments will protect existing grazing, recreation and water rights.
The information released by the White House so far has little to say on those topics, although for Basin and Range a monument "fact sheet" states that "certain historic uses, including livestock grazing and military use" will continue.
In addition to Basin and Range, Obama today also established the 107-acre Waco Mammoth National Monument in northeast Texas, which will protect the largest concentration of Columbian mammoth fossil remains in North America. He also designated the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in Northern California, which will stretch 330,000 acres and is a recreation hot spot for residents in nearby San Francisco and Sacramento (E&E Daily, July 10).
GOP leaders have accused Obama of abusing the law for political gain, and Republicans in both the House and Senate have proposed legislation that would restrict the president’s authority to unilaterally designate new monuments without congressional approval.
Bishop said presidents must adhere to specific requirements when using the Antiquities Act, which is designed to protect sites with cultural, historical or environmental significance.
"There is nothing that Obama did today that had anything to do with an antiquity," Bishop said. "There are criteria for using the act. There is nothing Obama announced that had anything to do with the criteria."
When asked about the Native American artifacts at the Basin and Range National Monument site in Nevada, including cave paintings, he said, "Ah, bull crap. That’s not an antiquity."
Bishop last year sponsored H.R. 1459, the "Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act," which would have required that monument designations greater than 5,000 acres be reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act. He hinted today that there is new legislation being developed by GOP leaders designed to rein in the president’s authority under the Antiquities Act, and that "I’m just waiting for the appropriate time when we’re actually going to do it."
Bishop was not alone in his criticism.
Rep. Cresent Hardy (R-Nev.), who this week successfully added an amendment to the U.S. EPA-Interior Department fiscal 2016 budget bill that would block funds from going to presidential declarations of national monuments in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Utah, said he was "disappointed" by the designations.
Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R) said the latest designations underscore "the need for Congress to build on the Hardy amendment, modernize this hundred-year-old statute and prevent its continued abuse by a president intent on locking up as much land as possible during his remaining days in office."
But the designations were praised by House Democrats, including Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking member of Bishop’s Natural Resources Committee, who said the nation has "a moral responsibility to conserve and protect vital habitat, natural scenery and historical treasures, and President Obama has met that responsibility again today."
They were also applauded by Nevada Rep. Dina Titus (D), who rejected Republicans’ call for reform of the Antiquities Act, noting that presidents have been making such designations for decades.
"All the arguments they offer, I think, are red herrings," Titus said.
The congresswoman added that public support in her home state is strong for the Basin and Range National Monument designation. She said that when she chaired a three-hour meeting on the decision a few months ago, "only one person was opposed to it, so that’s how much public support there is in Nevada."
Grijalva also downplayed attacks against the Antiquities Act, adding, "The law has proven its worth time and time again, and today’s announcements show why it continues to be one of our country’s most important conservation tools."
The designations were also praised today by two top Cabinet secretaries whose agencies will be involved in managing all three sites.
The Bureau of Land Management will oversee the Basin and Range National Monument, which sits in "a spectacular expanse of rugged public lands that tell the proud story of the West, from the ancient rock art of our first Americans to the early homesteaders looking for opportunity on the open range," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.
BLM and the Forest Service will jointly manage the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. The National Park Service will work with the city of Waco, Texas, and Baylor University to manage the Waco Mammoth National Monument.
"The president’s proclamation today will ensure that these lands will continue to be a sustainable, working landscape that supports local economies and critical resources like fresh water, grazing lands and habitat for important plant, fish and wildlife species," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said of Berryessa Snow Mountain.
Vilsack and Jewell both said there was broad public support for all three national monument designations.
Environmentalists today said the new national monument designations have burnished Obama’s conservation legacy.
"This is a gift to all Americans," said Sharon Buccino, director of the Land and Wildlife Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It’s heartening to know that our children and all future generations will have the opportunity to learn and draw inspiration from their visits to these beautiful, uniquely American places."
Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.