House panel approves bill to overhaul presidential monuments power

House panel approves bill to overhaul presidential monuments power
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A House panel on Wednesday approved a bill to reform a key federal conservation law, setting up a floor fight over the future of the president’s power to declare national monuments.

The House Natural Resources Committee approved the bill from Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopOvernight Energy: Puerto Rico officials defend Whitefish deal before Congress | US wants level playing field at UN climate summit | House passes flood insurance overhaul GOP chairman cites ‘credibility gap’ in Puerto Rico recovery Lawyers warned Puerto Rico utility against Whitefish contract MORE (R-Utah) to overhaul the century-old Antiquities Act in a 23-17 vote, sending it to the floor for consideration.

The bill would set new limits on the president’s ability to unilaterally preserve federal land and calls for more public input on potential new monument designations.

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Bishop, the committee's chairman and a longtime critic of presidents’ national monuments power, said his bill would reform a law with “worthy intent” and “honest purposes.”

But he argued modern presidents have used the law to lock up too much federal land, taking away the potential for local citizens to use the land themselves.

“Congress never intended to give one individual the power to unilaterally dictate the manner in which Americans may enjoy enormous swathes of our nation’s public lands,” he said. “Overreach in recent administrations have brought us to this point and it’s Congress’ duty to clarify the law and end the abuse.”

Conservatives have pilloried modern uses of the Antiquities Act, including the 550 million acres of national and marine monuments designated by former President Obama during his time in office.

Several natural resources sectors — including oil and gas, ranching and grazing, and the timber industries — have said the law prevents them from operating on public land.

Bishop’s bill would allow the president to designate monuments of up to 640 acres. But it would require increasingly strict environmental reviews and local input before larger monuments could be designated — with requirements growing depending on the potential monument's size — culminating in approval from state and local officials.

The bill, Bishop said, would “strengthen the original intent of the law while also providing much needed accountability.”

Democrats have broadly opposed the legislation, and conservation organizations have vowed to fight Bishop’s bill as it moves through Congress.

Opponents of the legislation say the bill undermines the Antiquities Act, which was signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1906 and has yielded national monuments that Congress later turned into national parks.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said the bill “essentially destroys the Antiquities Act.”

Democrats said the bill runs counter to the goals of the Antiquities Act because of the role it gives state and local officials in decisions over federal land.

They said a provision of the bill that allows presidents to shrink previously designated monuments proves President Trump can’t undo monuments subject to a recent Interior Department review, a power that will likely be tested in the courts.

They also accused Republicans of playing into the hands of industry groups, opposing legislation to conserve land while working to water down the president’s monument-making authority.

Monument designations “run counter to industry plans to maximize profits by drilling and mining on every inch of land belonging to American people,” Grijalva said.

“The Antiquities Act allows a president who values natural resources to protect them for future generations, at least until Congress can come along and provide legislative solutions," he said.

The panel voted down a Grijalva effort to force more information from the Interior Department on Secretary Zinke’s monuments review. Zinke has submitted a report to the White House that reportedly recommends Trump shrink some large monuments designated since 1996. 

Supporters of Grijalva’s measure say it’s necessary for inspecting how the department made its recommendations. But Republicans turned that charge on its head, saying Bishop’s bill would be a true transparency measure because of its new restrictions on future monuments.