President Obama’s growing list of national monuments is angering Republicans, with many calling the increased land protections an abuse of power.
The president has named 13 national monuments so far using the century-old Antiquities Act, putting tight restrictions on more than 1 million acres of public land.
The most recent one was last week, when the president designated more than 350,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains in California as a monument.
“The Antiquities Act is a political arrow in the president’s quiver,” said Melissa Subbotin, spokeswoman for Rep. Rob BishopRob BishopRepeal of Obama drilling rule stalls in the Senate Congress should stop trying to diminish public lands The Hill's Whip List: 36 GOP no votes on ObamaCare repeal plan MORE (R-Utah). “It’s abused for political purposes.”
Like delays in enforcing parts of ObamaCare and immigration policies to defer deportations, monuments have become a way for the president to score second-term achievements without Congress.
He has ramped up his use of the authority since winning reelection, with nine of his monument designations coming in his second term.
Earlier this year, Obama established the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, protecting more than a half million acres in New Mexico. The land features 9,000-foot rocks and populations of antelopes, mountain lions and falcons.
In June, he expanded to nearly 500,000 square miles a sanctuary near remote Pacific Islands, putting the area off-limits to fishing and energy exploration.
He’s also protected historic sites like an area in eastern Maryland that was important to the early life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and the home and gravesite of labor movement leader Cesar Chavez in California’s Tehachapi Mountains.
The use of the monument power is particularly controversial in western states, where the government already owns some 580 million acres of land and more than one-third of the land in 10 states. The land protections have long angered ranchers who chafe at restrictions from Washington.
“From my perspective, enough land is already owned or restrictively designated by the federal government, and adding to it by presidential decree is a bad idea,” said Robert Gordon, a senior adviser at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“At some point, you have to stop designating things and setting them aside. And we’re kind of at that point,” he said.
The White House notes that between 2009 and March 2014, Congress didn’t pass a single bill to create new land protections. The legislation passed this year designated a portion of a Michigan national park as wilderness.
Before the Michigan bill, “Congress had gone five years without protecting a new acre of public land — the longest period of congressional inaction on land conservation since World War II,” a White House official said.
Obama has clear authority to protect land, the official said, and has used the power in the same manner as other presidents.
The fifteen presidents preceding Obama designated 144 monuments or expansions, with 66 of them coming from Republicans and 77 from Democrats, according to the National Parks Conservation Association. President George W. President Bush named five monuments, and President Clinton created 22.
Bishop, the leader of the public lands subcommittee of the Natural Resources Committee, says it’s time that the antiquities power is reined in. He sponsored legislation that the House passed earlier this year that would limit the president’s power to name new monuments.
The legislation would limit presidents to one national monument per state each term, and require environmental review and public input for designations. Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiTrump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Republican Sen. Collins considering run for Maine governor in 2018 Alaska senators push bill to allow Arctic drilling MORE (R-Alaska) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
Bishop’s spokeswoman said the congressman has no problem with conservation.
“His concerns and frustrations are with the fact that today, the Antiquities Act is abused by presidents of both parties to enact large-scale designations that ultimately are intended to limit specific uses and activities on vast tracts of public lands,” she said.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, whose members rely on federal land for grazing, is backing Bishop’s bill.
“We believe that President Obama is abusing the Antiquities Act and going well beyond what Congress intended with the act as far as designating monuments,” said Dustin Van Liew, director of federal lands for the beef group and leader of the Public Lands Council, an affiliate group.
“It’s at the stroke of a pen, and whatever’s included in that proclamation is how that land is then managed going forward, taking it out of multiple use management and dictating from D.C. how those lands should be managed,” Van Liew said.
Liberals and conservationists have labeled Bishop’s legislation the “No New Parks Bill,” arguing that since many national parks start as monuments, Republicans want to limit the creation of parks.
“By gutting the Antiquities Act, you are taking away a tool that this country has long used to protect special places,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the monument authority is an important tool for protecting significant areas such as the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon.
“House Republicans, who have been openly hostile to the preservation of public lands, ignore the overwhelming community support for these monuments,” DeFazio said in a statement.
“If Congress actually did its job and passed good conservation bills that incorporated years of local input, presidential designations wouldn’t be our only option,” he said.