House Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah)

U.S. House Resources Committee

The House Natural Resources Committee moved forward with legislation aimed at modernizing a law originally passed more than a century ago on Wednesday, passing Rep. Rob Bishop’s (R-Utah) National Monument Creation and Protection Act which serves to update certain provisions in the Antiquities Act, a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.

The Antiquities Act was originally written to prevent looting of antiquities on Native American lands.  Intended to be used in cases of emergency, the law protects “landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” However, in the years since, presidents have used a much more broad interpretation of the statute in order to remove large swaths of land from multiple use.

“The Antiquities Act of 1906 is broken and in desperate need of reform.  No one person should be able to unilaterally lock up millions of acres of public land for multiple use with the stroke of a pen,” said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus.  “Local stakeholders deserve to have a voice in these public use decisions that impact their livelihoods.”

Bishop’s legislation is part of a broader push to bring more clarity to the process of declaring what becomes a national monument.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned from the recent national monument review and the decades of Antiquities Act abuse it’s that the Republicans and Democrats may finally want the same thing—accountability and the transparency and public input into the act’s usage,” he said.

Since the vast majority of federally-owned land is located in the western region, abuse of the Antiquities Act has the potential to significantly harm those states in particular, says Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation Constitutional Law Senior Fellow, Todd Gaziano.

According to Gaziano, when these states were first admitted into the union in the 19th century, the government retained a large majority of the territories’ land with the understanding that it would remain open for multiple use. That agreement would still allow for these states to benefit from revenues generated from land usage.

“When you lock up hundreds of millions of acres of federal land and you remove it from multiple use to national monument, you violate the historical compromise or solution to retaining so much land,” Gaziano told Western Wire, adding that not only would natural resources development like mining be impacted, but also industries like tourism or ranching.

While the law limits the scope of a president’s declaration to “be confined to the smallest area compatible,” it does not define what that limit is. In the past, presidents have taken advantage of overly broad language in the statute to declare millions of acres of land a national monument at one time.  One of the most commonly cited problems with Antiquities Act is that it does not currently require any involvement of Congress or input at the local level—allowing the White House to unilaterally make these distinctions.

In order to incorporate more feedback from the communities and states directly affected by national monument declarations, Bishop’s bill would create a tiered system requiring higher levels of approvals depending on the size of the proposed monument.  According to Bishop, “Designations between 10,000 and 85,000 acres would be required to obtain the approval of all county commissioners, state legislatures, and governors in the affected area.”

Matthew Anderson of the Utah-based Sutherland Institute applauded Bishop’s efforts.

“No one has a more vested interest in protecting our public lands and national treasures than locals whose history and future depend on their preservation,” Anderson told Western Wire. “For too long, corporate and environmental interests have drowned out the voices of those most impacted by national monument designations. It’s time to reform the Antiquities Act to give locals a seat at the table and include their voices in public land management.”

Bishop has said the purpose of his bill is to “strengthen” the original intent of the Antiquities Act, while establishing a “clear and consistent process.”

“We need to be precise; we need to tighten statutory construction.  When we pass vague, open-ended language, you open the door to controversy, legal challenges and a legacy of unintended consequences,” said Bishop.