Utah Congressman Rob Bishop has been trying to erode the Antiquities Act for most of his political career. But his latest salvo—a House resolution introduced Friday that attempts to impose massive new limits on Presidents’ ability to preserve public land—is the law’s biggest threat yet.
The Antiquities Act, which was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, grants the President the ability to further protect lands already managed by the federal government that have unique cultural, scientific, or natural features. Since its creation, the act has been used by all but three presidents to create new national monuments, without Congressional approval. This bothers the GOP, as well as the oil and gas industry that donates to many of its politicians. After all, it’s easier for a President to unilaterally decide to protect public lands than to have to wait for Congress, as must happen to create a national park.
You can read the full text of Bishop’s National Monument Creation and Protect Act, which is currently being reviewed by the House Committee on Natural Resources, which Bishop chairs. Let’s dive into the specifics of what the bill would do.
Limit the Features a Monument Can Protect
The GOP’s main objection to the Antiquities Act is that it places no hard limits on the size of national monuments and doesn’t provide a clear limit on the kinds of features a monument should protect.
With H.R. 3990, Bishop sets out to “fix” that. It reads: “In subsection (a), by striking ‘’historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest’’ and inserting ‘’object or objects of antiquity.’” That means a President could only designate a monument to preserve specific artifacts. Natural beauty, historical importance, or extreme biodiversity wouldn’t cut it as adequate reasons to protect the land. In other words, under this bill, President Bill Clinton wouldn’t have been able to create the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which was specifically designated to address environmental concerns.
Limit the Size of National Monuments
Bishop often talks about how national monuments have gotten much bigger. “Designations under the act last year averaged 739,645 acres, or more than 47 times the size of those created 110 years ago,” Bishop wrote in the Washington Examiner today.
He fails to explain that the increase was mostly the result of the vast Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, in the Pacific Ocean (which was created by President George Bush, then expanded by Obama), and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, in the Atlantic. Together, those two total nearly 376 million acres, skewing the average.
Yet Bishop’s resolution attempts to impose dramatic limits on the size of a new monument. “Land may not be declared under this section in a configuration that would create a national monument that is more than 640 acres.”
Complicate the Approval Process
The Antiquities Act is streamlined: the President simply issues a decree and the land is protected. Bishop would lead you to believe that process takes place without the input of local stakeholders, but it’s actually a years-long process in which thousands of voices are solicited and considered. For example, Rio Grande del Norte, in New Mexico, was under discussion for 20 years before protections were finalized.
Bishop wants to slow the process down even more. For proposed designations larger than 640 acres, his bill requires approval of the Department of Interior or the Department of Agriculture (depending on which manages the public land in question), before going to both county and state governments for further approval.
This new process would have sunk Bears Ears, as Utah Republican Governor Gary Herbert would likely have vetoed it.
Impose Limits on Emergency Designations
The Antiquities Act can be used in emergencies to protect areas, objects, or landmarks from imminent destruction. Roosevelt did just that with the Grand Canyon, preventing developers from extracting uranium within its boundaries.
Bishop’s bill acknowledges the need for this feature, but seeks to vastly limit it. He wants to impose not only a one-year term limit on an emergency declaration, but also a one-time-use clause that would prevent the emergency declaration from being re-declared or made permanent.
Create a Mechanism for Reducing a Monument
Currently, there is no accepted legal mechanism for President Donald Trump to abolish or reduce a designation. Bishop wants to change that. His bill grants a President the authority to reduce any monument by 85,000 acres or less by simple proclamation. Larger reductions are possible with the approval of county and state governments and the Department of the Interior or the Department of Agriculture.