Washington • The House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday advanced legislation to severely limit a president’s authority to name new national monuments while essentially killing Democrats’ request for more transparency in President Donald Trump’s review of monument designations in the last 21 years.
The bill, approved by the committee on a party-line vote and sponsored by its chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, would curtail use of the 1906 Antiquities Act that gives presidents power to name monuments.
It would require a president to seek approval of counties, the legislature and the governor in the state where a monument larger than 10,000 acres was to be named. It also would limit the reasons for a monument designation.
“I do hope that all of my colleagues understand that our problem isn’t [former President Barack] Obama or Trump,” Bishop said. “It’s the underlying law – a statute that provides unilateral authority to dictate national-monument decisions in secrecy and without public input. So we must also realize that the only path to the transparency and accountability we all seek – no matter which party controls the White House – is to amend the act itself.”
Republicans have long sought to pull back presidential power under the Antiquities Act, but Bishop’s legislation could be their best hope in recent years. The bill sets up a tiered system for a president to name a monument, allowing designations with no restrictions of less than 640 acres, an environmental review of monuments up to 10,000 acres and local and state approval for monuments up to 85,000 acres.
Monuments larger than 85,000 acres would require state and local approval and an environmental review. A president could still name a monument of any size in an emergency, but it would expire in a year without congressional action.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the committee, said Bishop’s measure “essentially destroys” the Antiquities Act.
“Arbitrary acreage limits that have nothing to do with science or ecology or history or culture, would destroy the act,” Grijalva said. “Limiting the act to man-made objects would destroy the act, not to mention demonstrate incredible arrogance.”
Grijalva noted that under the bill, Trump Tower in Manhattan could be protected but not the Grand Canyon.
Bishop countered that Trump Tower couldn’t be made a monument because it’s private property.
Democrats raised concerns during Wednesday’s meeting that Bishop introduced the bill only last week and held no hearing on it before calling a vote. The legislation was introduced quickly after Democrats pushed a resolution seeking more transparency in the Interior Department’s monument review.
The committee on Wednesday – again on a party-line vote – allowed that resolution to be reported to the House “unfavorably,” a move that would likely keep it from a full vote. The measure requires the Interior Department to turn over all documents related to its Trump-ordered review of monuments created since January 1996.
Bishop called the Democrats’ effort “futile” and noted that his legislation requires transparency in perpetuity and has the force of law while the minority party only wants the information from one president.
“I find it worth noting that while the minority seeks greater transparency when it comes to a review of the national-monument process, it seems entirely content to leave the monument-creation process hidden, behind closed doors, outside of the public eye,” Bishop said.
Had Bishop’s legislation been law, conservationists point out, most of Utah’s five national parks and other protected acreage would not have met the criteria to be preserved under the Antiquities Act, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, and Zion, Bryce, Arches and Capitol Reef national parks.
Four of Utah’s five national parks were first created as national monuments.
“If Rob Bishop’s vision for the Antiquities Act was enacted we would probably never see protected public lands again in Utah in our generation,” said Jen Ujifusa, legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “It’s amazing that we live in a state where Delicate Arch is such a revered symbol that we put it on our centennial license plate but under under this legislation it would have never been protected under the Antiquities Act.”
Ujifusa noted that while Bishop’s legislation may get traction in the House, it may not find a welcome in the Senate, where Republicans hold a small majority.
Ani Kame’enui, director of legislation and policy at the National Parks Conservation Association, called Bishop’s bill “extreme.”
“Americans should be appalled that anyone in Congress would want to dismantle the law responsible for creating many of our national parks,” Kame’enui said. “If passed, this legislation would be devastating not only to our nation’s history, but also to our local economies.”
Democrats and environmentalists found a silver lining in Bishop’s measure, though, noting that his bill grants the president the power to reduce the size of monuments — proof, they say, that such authority doesn’t exist in current law.
“The legislation includes language that grants the president the authority to reduce the size of our country’s national monuments, all but admitting the administration’s current interest in doing this is unlawful,” Kame’enui said. “At least we can agree on that.”
Every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used the Antiquities Act to name monuments, though Republicans claim it’s been abused by recent administrations, specifically by Obama, who named the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah just weeks before leaving office.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has recommended trimming that monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996.