Fight over national monuments intensifies

Fight over national monuments intensifies
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Conservatives have opened a new front in the fight over the future of America’s national monuments.  

House Republicans are moving forward with a bill to reform a century-old conservation law, raising the stakes in their ongoing effort to curtail the president's’ ability to set aside wide swaths of federal land as national monuments and protect them from future development.

The new legislation, from Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopSenators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school Bureau of Land Management to move headquarters from DC to Colorado Overnight Energy: Democrats to vote on 2020 climate debate | Green groups sue to stop Keystone XL construction | States sue EPA for tougher rules on asbestos MORE (R-Utah), comes as the White House mulls reductions to several previously declared monuments. That’s an effort environmentalists consider an affront to the Antiquities Act, a law signed by conservation champion Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.

Conservatives, industry groups and Westerners have long pushed for changes to the Antiquities Act, saying presidents of both parties have abused the law, handcuffing local communities who could look to create jobs on public land. President Trump is an ally in that effort. 

Environmentalists and most Democrats consider the Antiquities Act a bedrock American conservation law and have vowed to fight any effort to water it down. 

The reform effort has its impetus in what conservatives consider an abuse of federal monument designation powers.

Sixteen presidents have used the Antiquities Act to lock up federal land over the last century. But President Obama used it the most often, and protected by far the most acreage — 553.6 million acres of land and sea monuments — inspiring a fresh round of legislative proposals.

“It has good intentions,” said Matt Anderson, the Director of the Coalition for Self-Government in the West at the Utah-based free market Sutherland Institute.  

“Transparency and the democratic process have produced sensible legislation for 200 years, but for some reason the Antiquities Act has been an exception. It’s time we bring it into the modern age.”

Bishop’s bill would give presidents the power to declare monuments of up to 640 acres without restriction. But as potential designations get bigger, they would have to meet other conditions, including environmental reviews and approval by state and local officials who are currently not involved in the monument designation process.

It’s not the only legislative attempt to change the law, but it has attracted a wave of opposition from Democrats and outside groups who consider it a major threat, given the speed with Republicans moved it through committee.

“What is being done here is really unprecedented,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“It has huge implications for our public land and our natural assets all the way down the line. … The attitude has to be that this is not only worth fighting, but it’s consequential if it ever got to President Trump for his signature.”

The bill is one facet of a broader GOP push to overhaul the nation’s system of national monuments. 

In April, Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkePuerto Rican police fire tear gas at crowds protesting governor Overnight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Trump officials gut DC staff as public lands agency preps to move out West MORE to assess 27 monument designations from both parties dating back to 1996, and Zinke is reportedly planning to suggest Trump shrink several of those designations. Greens have vowed to sue to test Trump’s ability to do so.  

Trump’s order has emboldened critics of the Antiquities Act. At the time he called the law “another egregious abuse of federal power.”

“You have to acknowledge the change in tone of this administration from previous administrations. This is a president being willing to limit his own power and authority under the Antiquities Act,” said Ethan Lane, the executive of the Public Lands Council, which represents ranchers in fights over federal land.

“For those us that work on this issue, it’s been a roadblock, because no president wants to restrict his own power.” 

But changing the Antiquities Act, rather than rescinding previously monuments, is a higher priority for the interest groups who oppose monument-making power. 

“This is more important than any of the existing monument designations,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the Western Energy Alliance oil industry group.

“Oil and gas has generally been avoided in monument designations. We have not had a large impact — it hasn’t been zero, but it hasn’t been significant. We are much more focused, moving forward, on Antiquities Act reform.”

That makes Bishop’s bill a rallying point for reform supporters.

Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee, which Bishop chairs, rallied around the legislation and approved it on Wednesday night, sending it to the floor for consideration.

“What we’re doing now is saying, there is a flawed act that allows presidents to act indiscriminately and on a limb and all their deliberations have to be done in secret,” Bishop said. “Instead of doing away with the act, let’s fix it.”

Conservationists pushed back hard against Zinke’s monuments review, producing 2.5 million comments against it, going on the air to pressure the former Montana congressman to support protected lands, and commissioning polls showing support for monuments among voters.

“This experiment in public lands has been woven into who we are as Americans,” said Land Tawney, the head of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers sportsman group.

“Since Teddy Roosevelt started that … there have been folks trying exploit those resources. … I have confidence in the American people that they will step up, because they have before and that’s why we have the conservation legacy in this country.” 

They vowed to wage a similar campaign against any legislative effort to rewrite the monuments-making power, promising a campaign based not only on their belief in the Antiquities Act but an economic message about the value of public lands. 

“We’re worked with outdoor industry associations to show what the economic value of public land is. We’re working this on a broad scale,” said Whit Fosburgh, the president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. 

“This is fundamental to making America different from the rest of the world. I think we’ve seen these battles going on ever since Teddy Roosevelt. ... The attacks over time have gotten more sophisticated.”