Presidential power over monuments should have checks and balances

Presidential power over monuments should have checks and balances
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President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHealth insurers Cigna, Humana waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment Puerto Rico needs more federal help to combat COVID-19 Fauci says April 30 extension is 'a wise and prudent decision' MORE’s decision to reduce the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments is sending shock waves through the environmental community, Western states and all who cherish America’s public lands.

Some hail the executive order as a reprieve from federal overreach, while others are condemning it as an assault on our public lands. And while those on the extremes will try to politicize and muddy the issue, one thing is clear about the president’s action: It isn’t the end of the debate; it simply signals the end of the beginning.


National monuments have a long and contentious history. Unfortunately, the debate surrounding their designations has been largely confined to Western states, where presidents of both parties increasingly have placed millions of acres under national monument status. Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeThe case for transferring federal lands back to Native Americans International hunting council disbands amid litigation Europe deepens energy dependence on Russia MORE’s review of national monuments and the president’s executive order have brought the issue onto a national stage and finally allowed local voices to be part of the discussion.        


Now that the issue has reached national prominence, it’s time for both sides to get serious about finding a common-ground, common-sense solution.

Presidents should retain the power to designate national monuments. The pure intentions of the Antiquities Act to protect our national treasures from destruction and desecration should be preserved. To remove this power from the executive branch entirely would be a knee-jerk reaction that rejects a fundamental and prudent component of federal land management.

However, this authority must be restored to its original purpose and scope. The authors of the Antiquities Act intended presidents to designate only small sites in imminent danger, not to set aside hundreds of thousands of additional acres. Any presidential monument designation larger than a few hundred acres should require approval by Congress as well as the state legislature and governor of the impacted state. The same process should be required when a president decides to reduce or entirely rescind a national monument.

This sensible solution reinstates checks and balances into federal land management — protecting the interests of national monument proponents and opponents alike and incorporating local voices into the process.

If we choose to ignore this path of collaboration and compromise, discontent and discord will continue to escalate with each presidential administration. What can be done by executive order can just as easily be undone by that same power. Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante and any other national monuments Trump alters can be returned to their original status or even expanded by the next occupant of the Oval Office. This places our national monuments in a precarious situation.

With each new presidential administration, the boundaries and status of our national monuments will change. Instead of thoughtful, sound approaches to federal land management policy, political backlash and ideological interests will drive the future of these public lands. Our national monuments will become the latest in a long line of political footballs — being punted back and forth depending on who is in power.

Living and dying by executive order is the wrong way to preserve our national treasures, ensure careful stewardship of the land, or provide certainty for the people who depend on these areas for their livelihood.  

Sustainability and certainty matter in all public policy decisions, and land management is no exception. Public lands policy driven by executive order is both unsustainable and uncertain. There’s a better way.

Now is the time to draw on our shared love of our public lands and begin a meaningful dialogue that drives true collaboration. By rising above partisan politics, we can transform the Antiquities Act from an executive bludgeon into an effective tool for safeguarding the environment, protecting archaeological sites and securing the future of rural communities.

Matthew Anderson is federalism policy director at Sutherland Institute. He heads the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.