Bishop Invites Former Presidents To Testify On Antiquities Act And National Monument Designations
Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have all used the power of the executive pen to set aside vast tracts of federal lands and create national monuments, but in an unusual move one member of Congress who sees such unfettered power as lacking in oversight and public input has asked the ex-presidents to testify before Congress.
On Tuesday, Rep. Rob Bishop, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, invited the three previous presidents who put millions of acres into national monuments through the Antiquities Act to provide their perspective on the topic of presidential monument designations. Only four former presidents have ever testified before Congress, according to Politico.
“As you know, the Antiquities Act allows Presidents to unilaterally create national monuments on federal lands where objects of antiquity are at risk—without public participation, congressional review, or any procedural requirements,” Bishop wrote to Obama.
The Act, passed in 1906 and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, give the President wide latitude to designate new national monuments from lands under federal administration for “protection of objects of historic and scientific interest. The law grew out of a need to preserve archaeological finds, including Native American artifacts, found on federal lands in the West.
“There are, however, several limitations to this power. One related to the size of a monument, which ‘shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected,’” he continued. “Presidents increasingly ignore Congress’s clear intent in this regard.”
Bishop pointed to the nearly 2 million acres of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah designated by Clinton; more than 330,000 square miles included in the Papahanaumokuakea, Marianas Trench, Pacific Remote Islands, and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments tapped by Bush; and more than 553 million acres, including Bears Ears National Monument in Utah proclaimed by Obama.
“This monument, totaling 1,351,849 acres, covered an area larger than the State of Rhode Island,” Bishop continued, writing that local municipal governments and other Utah officials, including Monticello City Council, the City of Blanding, and San Juan County leaders opposed the monument designation at Bears Ears.
Bishop charged that the Grand Staircase-Escalante designation nearly two decades earlier by Clinton was “almost entirely motivated to assist the Clinton-Gore reelection effort.”
Bishop cited a Clinton staff member, who wrote that while the designation “would help overcome negative views toward the Administration” and create “a compelling reason for person who are now disaffected to come around and enthusiastically support” the Clinton Administration, the idea should be rejected “because these lands are not really endangered.”
The monument took approximately 200,000 acres of Utah school trust lands off the table, removing not just the land itself but the school funding revenues and hurt local economies as well, according to the letter.
But Bishop pulled no partisan punches. In his letter to Bush, blasting the prohibitions on commercial activity with the marine monuments, writing that the “permanent, unilateral designations lack the level of scientific rigor, direct industry input, transparency, and deliberation that is essential to sound, scientifically-based policymaking decisions.”
The Utah Congressman noted that Obama’s Bears Ears National Monument had been challenged by the current administration, after a review of the designation was conducted in 2017, finding the land designated for inclusion had not met the “smallest area compatible” criteria, and that then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke had recommended a reduction in the monument’s coverage. President Trump moved to create two separate but smaller National Monument segments 85 percent smaller than the original Bears Ears National Monument acreage.
Obama (34) and Clinton (22) lead all presidents with the creation of monuments under Antiquities Act powers. Bishop has called for legislation that would reform the Act, reducing a president’s power to act without public oversight or input.
“The ‘National Monument Creation and Protection Act’, or National Monument CAP Act’, restores the original Congressional intent of the Antiquities Act while modernizing the law for the 21st Century and introducing new accountability measures. This comprehensive reform legislation includes provisions to protect endangered antiquities, prevent abuse of executive authority, empower impacted communities and protect property rights. These reforms balance the protection of archeological resources with the need to check executive overreach,” Bishop wrote in a call for co-sponsors.
The bill would require National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review if the monument was between 640 acres and 10,000 acres. An environmental assessment or environmental impact statement would also be reviewed if between 5,000 and 10,000 acres. Finally a public report with economic, recreational, and other impacts would also be provided before a monument proclamation.
All three letters contained a similar coda, as Bishop pointed out that Congress had itself empowered the executive branch, and specifically the president, to undertake such actions.
“You are not totally to blame for these unfortunate circumstances. The fact that such a law even exists is an indictment against Congress for vesting vast, unilateral authority in a single person while foregoing a transparent and public-driven process,” Bishop wrote.
The voices of the three former presidents “would be of tremendous value to our members and the public,” he concluded.
Western Wire reached out to the offices of each of the former presidents for comment and will update with any response.