With the eyes of the nation on Salt Lake City today for the White House’s announcement on the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, the political conversation is following a predictable course. Whether they lament the undoing of President Obama’s environmental legacy, or discuss the Trump administration’s new approach to federal land management, most narratives share a common theme: Examining how presidents – past and present – have wielded the unchecked power granted to them under the Antiquities Act. The impacts to local communities are treated as nothing more than a footnote.
A conversation about the political ramifications is certainly worth having. But in our rush to catalogue the impacts and pontificate on the motives, we are missing a chance to have a more critical debate about the process the federal government follows when designating monuments.
Most Westerners think of federal processes in terms of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA for short. NEPA evaluation is the beginning and end of seemingly every land use conversation. The Antiquities Act is a glaring exception to that rule. A mere four paragraphs of vaguely worded text, the Act was used to lock up over 500 million acres of land and water in the last administration alone, without any consultation process whatsoever.
If other federal land management decisions were made in such an arbitrary manner, the environmental community would be screaming bloody murder. Environmental groups routinely slam administration officials for not soliciting public input on a wide range of federal land issues, from wildlife management to forest fire prevention. National monument designations have been exempted from their crosshairs because the lack of a formal, transparent process typically does wonders for their agenda.
Previous presidents repeatedly used the Antiquities Act to designate massive swaths of land, ignoring original congressional intent that monuments be the “smallest area compatible” with conservation objectives. No mechanism exists to hold the executive accountable when they stretch the definition of “smallest area” to the limits of credulity or redefine “conservation objectives” to suit their preferences.
Nowhere has the impact of such overreach been felt more intensely than right here in Utah, where presidents have locked off millions of acres in the past 25 years. A “victory” for activists in downtown Portland or New York City, monument designations are often a death sentence to rural communities. By wiping out the main economic driver in remote Utah towns, monuments eroded property values and decimated the tax base of municipal governments.
When the president has the power to implement an action of this magnitude without any regard for public input, something about the process is broken. Many of the groups who oppose the administration’s monument decisions have never recognized that fact. Perhaps they will have a change of heart now that the political winds are not blowing in their favor. After all, the desire for a credible, transparent monument designation process should span party lines and ideological viewpoints.
All those dissatisfied with today’s decisions should step up and join our calls for reform to the Antiquities Act. Legislative efforts are already underway, with Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, sponsoring a bill that would set clear parameters for monument designations and give local voices a critical role in the process. Together we can ensure that massive land management decisions are subject to an appropriate level of input and scrutiny.
It is time to take a serious look at how the federal government creates and maintains national monuments. The status quo will only lead to more bickering, more division, and less durable solutions for all of us who care deeply about our public lands.
Dave Eliason, a fourth-generation commercial cattle rancher headquartered near Snowville, Utah, is president of the Public Lands Council.