House pushes to limit president's right to designate monuments

House pushes to limit president's right to designate monuments
The Point Arena lighthouse at the northern end of the California Coastal National Monument in Mendocino County. President Obama added 1,665 acres to the monument, which was established in 2000 by President Clinton. (Brant Ward / San Francisco Chronicle)

WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled House voted Wednesday to scale back the president's authority to establish national monuments, seeking changes to a century-old law that critics say has put wide swaths of the West off-limits to activities such as logging, grazing and mining.

The measure, which passed on a largely party-line 222-201 vote, is unlikely to come to a vote in the Democratic-led Senate. Still, Republicans were eager to highlight differences between the parties in an election year.

The vote came on the heels of President Obama using his authority this month to expand the California Coastal National Monument. Obama has suggested that with scores of conservation bills languishing in Congress, further unilateral action could be in the offing.

The legislation would amend the 1906 Antiquities Act by limiting a president to designating one monument per state during a four-year term, unless Congress agrees to more designations.


It would require an environmental review, including public comment, of any proposed monument larger than 5,000 acres. The president could take emergency action to protect less than 5,000 acres. Under the legislation, the designation would expire after three years unless it gets congressional approval or an environmental review.

Obama bypassed Congress to add about 1,665 acres of Mendocino County coastline to the California Coastal National Monument in the first onshore addition to the monument, established in 2000 by President Clinton to protect 20,000 small islands, reefs, rocks and pinnacles off California's coast.

It was the 10th time Obama had used his executive power to establish or expand a national monument and came after he vowed in this year's State of the Union address to use his authority to "protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations."

Presidents dating back to Theodore Roosevelt have used the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect "objects of historic or scientific interest."

Critics say the act has been abused by presidents of both parties. A House Natural Resources Committee report says the act has been used "as a backdoor maneuver to lock up lands, including private property and other inholdings, for purposes that deny public access for recreation and job creation."

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the bill's chief sponsor, said that many officials feared that a president, by the stroke of the pen, "will change their lives significantly, make their economy turn upside down, and there is not a thing they can do about it." He said the legislation was designed to ensure public input before a monument was created.

Bishop and a number of his Utah colleagues remain upset over Clinton's creation of the more than 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in their state in 1996, which put a vast coal reserve off-limits to mining.

Environmental groups warned the legislation would hamper a president's ability to move swiftly to protect natural wonders and historic sites when Congress has been slow to act.

Democrats ridiculed Republicans for advocating greater environmental review of proposed monuments while seeking to ease environmental rules for new mining and oil drilling.

"If the majority is so eager to apply [the National Environmental Policy Act] to the Antiquities Act," asked Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), "why are they trying to limit its scope for other activities on public lands?"