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Maine Gov. Paul LePage warned Congress of the designations' negative consequences, one week after President Trump signed an executive order calling for a review of monuments created by past presidents.
WASHINGTON — Disagreements over the authority presidents have used to set aside vast tracts of public land as national monuments flared Tuesday on Capitol Hill, with Republicans sharply criticizing monument designations former President Obama made while in office.
Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate national monuments. But critics of the law say its use has drifted from its original intent, enabling executive overreach and designations that don’t reflect concerns at the state and local level.
“The Antiquities Act has to be modified and modernized. I don’t care who does it. I want to be involved in the conversations,” U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, told Route Fifty on Tuesday.
GOP House members zeroed in Tuesday on Obama’s use of the law, especially his designation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the Katahdin Woods and Waters monument in Maine and his enlargement of the Cascade-Siskiyou monument, which is mostly in Oregon.
“In the last eight years the Obama administration used this act to declare national monument status over 553.4 million acres of land and water,” said U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, during a hearing of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Federal Lands.
McClintock, who chairs the subcommittee, said these “designations were often imposed in spite of local opposition, without consultation with Congress or the state or local governments affected and without regard to the economic damage” they would cause in surrounding areas.
The congressman’s views are not universal. Those who support the designations highlight outreach efforts and dispute the fact that the monuments have caused economic harm.
After asking about the public engagement efforts that went on prior to the designation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters monument, U.S. Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat said: “It appears to me now in hearing some of the testimony and some of the comments that this is now a Congress-created paranoia to tear down this monument.”
The discussion that unfolded Tuesday was the latest sign that the Antiquities Act and national monument designations would see fresh scrutiny with President Trump in the White House.
Trump last week signed an executive order directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review monuments created or expanded since 1996, a move with implications for millions of acres of land and monument designations dating back to then-President Bill Clinton’s time in office.
“I am concerned that this executive order and these hearings are the beginning of future efforts to erode or strip away the authority of the Antiquities Act,” said U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a Hawaii Democrat who is the ranking member on the Federal Lands subcommittee.
U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican, introduced legislation Tuesday that would require state and congressional approval before a president can designate a monument.
McClintock mentioned limitations on the amount of acreage that can be included within a monument and requirements for states and localities to have involvement in decision-making processes as possibilities for how designations under the Antiquities Act could be reworked.
Jen Ujifusa, legislative director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, pointed out that bills calling for changes to the Antiquities Act have been introduced previously and are not unusual. The group, she said, expects to see this sort of legislation emerge in the months ahead.
“But we don’t expect to see it pass,” she said during a phone interview. “I would be shocked if anything like that could get through the Senate.”
Ujifusa also said it is a “a completely false narrative” to say the Obama administration did inadequate public outreach before designating the Bears Ears monument. “The administration went out of its way and bent over backwards to make sure that the community was heard.”
National monuments can range in size and scope from the 2.3-acre President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home monument, which includes a house in Washington, D.C. where Lincoln spent time during the Civil War, to the nearly 1.9 million acres of rugged cliffs, canyons and other terrain that make up the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
Trump’s order puts special emphasis on monuments that are over 100,000 acres. It is unclear from a legal perspective whether the president has the authority to rescind existing national monument designations. If Trump tried to do so, it's all but certain it would trigger a court battle.
Asked if he believed Trump has the authority to rescind the Bears Ears designation, Bishop replied: “Of course he has the authority to.”
But former U.S. Bureau of Land Management director Kathleen Clarke, who is now an official in Utah’s Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, was less certain. “That notion has not been challenged in court,” she noted during her remarks before the subcommittee.
Debates about a variety of federal public lands—not only national monuments—tend to involve conflicting views over how the areas should be managed.
Controversies stem from questions over blocking or allowing industrial uses like logging, mining, grazing and gas and oil drilling. Barring or permitting recreational activities like snowmobiling, ATV-riding and hunting can be sticking points as well.
There are also arguments about whether federal management practices have led to increased wildfire fire risks in some areas, with forests going unthinned.
Gov. Paul LePage, of Maine, who has spoken out against the Katahdin Woods and Waters monument, was on hand at Tuesday’s meeting. He told the lawmakers that the monument was problematic for the state’s logging industry, infringed on ATV trails and threatened to draw in more visitors that would create unmanageable pressures for other park land.
“Maine has a long history of prudent stewardship of its forest resources with minimal federal assistance,” LePage said.
The Katahdin Woods and Waters monument was created on about 87,000 acres donated by the co-founder of Burt's Bees cosmetics, Roxanne Quimby. Quimby’s son, Lucas St. Clair, led an effort to get the monument designated. Snowmobiling and hunting are among the activities permitted on the land, which is located about 75 miles north of Bangor.
“We bought this land from the timber industry, from willing sellers,” St. Clair said to the subcommittee.
St. Clair told Route Fifty after the hearing that he was not concerned that President Trump would take action to abolish the Katahdin Woods and Waters monument.
“What I’m most concerned about is that there’s a fair criteria for evaluating the national monuments that were created,” he said. “And as long as it’s a clear, fair, open process, I’m very comfortable with the fact that it will go well. Because people will come to the Katahdin region and realize how much public support there was.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.