IN THE NEWS--'An open and public process': Republicans take aim at presidential exemption
Devils Tower National Monument, one of two national monuments in Wyoming, is shown in an undated file photo. A coalition of conservation groups are urging U.S. House members to kill a bill that would limit the president's ability to designate lands as national monuments.
In what's shaping to be a battle on the authority of the executive branch, House Republicans and conservationists are squaring off over a century-old law that gives presidents the authority to designate lands as national monuments.
A coalition of more than 50 activist groups sent a letter Monday to U.S. House members urging them to kill a bill that would drastically change the 1906 Antiquities Act and the national monument designation process. For Wyoming, the Antiquities Act has little significance aside from its historic effect. The state has the only exemption from the law in the nation.
The 108-year-old law allows presidents to unilaterally declare historically or environmentally significant lands national monuments. The legislation in question, HR 1495, requires any presidentially proposed national monument to churn through a public comment period and other measures outlined under the National Environmental Protection Act, a law used by Congress and federal agencies to quantify environmental impacts. The legislation would also limit national monument designations to one per state per presidential term.
Lawmakers in the chamber will vote on the legislation Wednesday.
Conservation groups like the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association banded together to express outrage over the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. One of their main talking points was the bipartisan use of the Antiquities Act.
Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 ushered the law into use when he declared Wyoming's Devils Tower the first national monument. Since Roosevelt, 16 other presidents used the act to establish national monuments. Eight are Democrats. Eight are Republican, according to the letter. President George W. Bush used the law to create five new monuments. President Barack Obama has created 10 during his tenure in the White House.
The National Park Service manages 78 monuments. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service oversee more than 25 others.
The law has also secured land that has eventually become some of the nation's most popular national parks. Presidents used the act to designate Grand Canyon, Zion, Arcadia and parts of Grand Teton National Park as national monuments before they gained park status, the letter states.
According to the letter, a president's ability to act without Congress allows for swift action "to protect significant, historic, and scenic objects on federal lands."
The legislation would throw major speed bumps in the way of presidents who are trying to see a national monument fast-tracked into existence. For the 23 projects that funneled through the NEPA process in 2011, the median time from the beginning to the end of the process was 79 months, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
There are times when antiquities, artifacts, prehistoric fossils, public lands, ocean resources or war memorials can be at risk, said Joan Anzelmo, spokeswoman for the Coalition of the National Park Service Retirees, a group that signed the letter.
"It would be insane if Congress were to ruin this act that has provided so much for the American People and the American economy," Anzelmo said.
House Republicans say the bill isn't an attempt to strip the president of authority or jeopardize sensitive land. It's about leveling the playing field between the president and Congress, said Melissa Subbotin, a spokeswoman for Bishop.
When the act first became law, historic artifacts and lands were often the collateral damage of western expansion, Subbotin said.
"The act was a tool to protect areas under imminent threat," she said. "Since 1906, we've had a lot of new laws put into place that are designed to do the same thing in a more thoughtful way."
Aside from the NEPA process, there are a string of public hearings and other debates in the Capitol before a congressional proposal designating a national monument can become law, Subbotin said.
"It's an open and public process, everybody has an opportunity to weigh in and it's done transparently," she said. "This process frustrates those that are simply looking at quickly seeing a public lands' designation. It's not as much about quantity as it is quality."
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo, said her colleague's legislation is "logical," despite its limited impace on the state.
"A national monument designation is a major federal action," she said. "All other major federal actions require the NEPA process. If we are going to impose that rigorous evaluation of other federal actions, certainly the classification of new national monuments should jump through the same hoop."
Opponents of the new law are touting the economic benefits national monuments bring to communities. The letter cites New Mexico as an example how national monuments boost local economies.
Following the March 2013 designation of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, the town of Taos' lodging tax revenue increased by 21 percent and other tourism-based revenue in Taos County jumped by $3.7 million in the second half of 2013 over the same period of 2012, according to data from the Chamber of Commerce.
"If we want to have a conversation about how to protect America's lands, this isn't the way to have it," said Meghan Kissell, a spokeswoman for the Conservation Lands Foundation.