Over the past 111 years, a succession of U.S. presidents — eight Democrats and seven Republicans — have used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect areas of unique historical or scientific interest, designating 157 national monuments encompassing about 850 million acres in 27 states (including 10 monuments in California). In 32 instances, Congress later converted monuments into national parks, which, as writer Wallace Stegner once noted, "are the best idea we ever had." In fact, some of our most prized parklands — the Grand Canyon, Zion, the Grand Tetons — initially were set aside by presidents under the Antiquities Act.
But now there's a fresh movement in Congress to severely reduce a president's authority to protect federal lands from development and other uses that would mar their beauty and damage our national heritage. Similar attempts have failed in past sessions; the new version deserves the same fate.
The disingenuously named National Monument Creation and Protection Act would cap new monuments at 85,000 acres, cover only "objects of antiquity" and not natural or scientific wonders now eligible and require counties, states and governors to approve designations over 10,000 acres. The Grand Canyon and Grant Tetons would not have qualified under those limits.
We've already seen what happens when the president is restricted from making such designations. Political fallout after designations of monuments in Wyoming and Alaska led Congress to require a president to get lawmakers' approval before establishing any new monuments in those states (the Alaska measure applies to designations of more than 5,000 acres). No monuments have been proposed in either one since those requirements were added, so the chilling effect is pretty clear.
Such efforts to limit the Antiquities Act are not evidence-based reforms to improve efficiency or fix policies that have not worked. The Antiquities Act has worked splendidly. The federal government already is required to consult with local communities and stakeholders when moving toward a monument designation, which is the appropriate level of information-gathering. Washington should consider the desires and needs of affected regions, but that is not the same thing as giving local government effective veto power over what the federal government does with federal lands.
That sort of local veto is the goal of the bill's author, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who recently pushed the measure through the panel that he chairs, the House Natural Resources Committee. But the vast open spaces in Utah do not belong to the people of Utah. They belong to the people of the United States.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan should mothball this effort to undo the Antiquities Act. The present designations were achieved after extensive study and analysis and have served well the interests of preserving some of the most beautiful regions of the country. The Antiquities Act should not be undone to feed the appetites of land-hungry politicians.