As the new Democratic chairman and top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, respectively, Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva and I recently presided over a hearing examining the status of presidentially declared national monuments under the Antiquities Act, including Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.
I followed-up with a letter to Chairman Grijalva with a simple invitation: Let’s write a national monuments reform bill together that does exactly what he said he wants during that panel.
While the hearing initially focused on two Utah monuments, it didn’t take long for the whole room to realize we were confronting a deeper problem. Republicans, Democrats, and local stakeholders have all expressed frustration with the Antiquities Act. As written, the act incentivizes presidents of both major political parties to sidestep transparent democratic processes by mandating unilateral land use decisions. Consequently, voices from all sides of the political spectrum have been silenced and ignored even as generational decisions about their futures were being made behind closed White House doors.
The Antiquities Act is the law by which presidents have designated monuments ranging from Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to Arizona’s Casa Grande Ruins and Montezuma Castle. Rightly, some monuments enjoy overwhelming local support prior to designation. Due to a lack of a Congressional review requirement for presidential declarations, designations under the Antiquities Act can be promulgated quickly to protect against imminent threats.
That feature of speedy monument designation can also be a curse. This fact has been amply, painfully demonstrated to communities across my state. In the last few decades, presidents have outright abused the Antiquities Act in Utah. Regardless of how you feel about the areas that were designated, the fact that Presidents Clinton and Obama came in the dead of night — without any input from state or local elected officials! — and locked up millions of acres of land is outrageous. Local representation opposed the massive monuments. The livelihoods of ranchers and access for recreators was scuttled overnight, and the traditions of families with generations of responsible land stewardship were suddenly upended without due process.
The declarations were also deficient as a matter of law. The Antiquities Act sets out three criteria which govern what a legitimate monument looks like. To prevent presidential overreach, monument boundaries must be drawn to protect specific objects like structures and landmarks, can contain only objects of genuine historic or scientific interest located on federal holdings, and have to be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of those objects. These designations failed to meet any of those most basic thresholds.
None of that mattered to these presidents. Their agendas were set in motion by well-funded out-of-state environmentalist advertising campaigns. They shut out the locals and pressed ahead despite overwhelming opposition.
In recent decades, national monuments have become politically popular for Democrats. The Antiquities Act has worked as a convenient tool to virtue signal while avoiding accountability. The bigger the monument, the better, when the goal is to satisfy outside special interests.
For this reason, Democrats largely supported the designations in my home state of Utah. Ironically though, they too became outraged when President Trump applied the Antiquities Act to reduce the monuments’ boundaries as had been recommended by a recent study by the U.S. Department of the Interior. This was especially clear at the recent hearing. We had a diverse room full of people — Republicans, Democrats, and witnesses all assembled — who were indignant and spun-up with allegations of impropriety. In common these complaints all held that Presidents had failed to sufficiently consult the public.
Regardless of who holds the White House in the future, no one can seriously claim the current situation is just or leads to good lands policy. The vicious cycle of accusations and anger can be prevented if the Antiquities Act is amended to institute the basic transparency and public input requirements which already apply to all of our other major federal lands decisions.
Chairman Grijalva indicated he understood that when he said, “[w]e will continue to proceed to make sure that the transparency and the public’s right to know is part and parcel of the discussion going forward. And any reforms and any legislation to try to make this situation whole is something we will be exploring in the near future.”
These are encouraging words. I am hopeful the chairman converts them into action. Together, we can craft a bipartisan bill that builds basic transparency and fairness into the Antiquities Act.
Rob Bishop has represented Utah in the United States House since 2003.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.