Since 1906 when Congress bestowed upon U.S. presidents the power to use executive orders to set aside certain public lands for preservation purposes, many a national treasure has been permanently protected through the Antiquities Act. Among them are some regional favorites such as Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, designated in 2000, and more recently, Chimney Rock National Monument, which was protected as such in 2012. The House on Wednesday approved measure that would significantly curb presidential authority under the Antiquities Act. It should go no farther.
Executive power to preserve critical public lands has a long history of being well used, in this region and far beyond. It was used to designate the Aztec Ruins National Monument, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park and Grand Canyon National Monument – the precursor to the national park. In total, more than 100 natural, cultural and historical sites across the country have been protected through the Antiquities Act and the authority it extends to presidents.
During the last two sessions of Congress, wherein moving any bill no matter how non-controversial, has become a rarity on the order of Bigfoot sightings, the Antiquities Act has become all the more important for setting aside areas deemed worthy of long-term protection. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, introduced and passed House Resolution 1459, the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act. It would significantly restrict presidential powers under the Antiquities Act, such that, barring an act of Congress, any designations would be limited to one per four-year term. It would also require National Environmental Policy Act analysis of any proposed monument designation of more than 5,000 acres, and would have smaller designations expire after three years. Fundamentally, it limits the means by which deserving public lands can be protected, and with Congress an increasingly less viable option, the Antiquities Act is more important than ever.
Chimney Rock National Monument exemplifies the act’s critical role. The site was long the subject of pending legislation introduced by former Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, and carried forward by his successor, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez. The measure enjoyed support from Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and even passed the House under Tipton’s tutelage. But given the deadlock that had set in by 2012, action in the Senate was elusive and a presidential proclamation extending national monument status to Chimney Rock was appropriate – indeed, it was the only alternative. President Barack Obama’s decision to issue the designation was far from heavy-handed: It came with wide-ranging, bipartisan support from every stakeholder involved in the campaign to elevate Chimney Rock to monument status. The public was involved, as were the various land management agencies, as well as local and regional lawmakers. Under Bishop’s bill, presidents would be stripped of their ability to heed such multi-toned choruses.
The Antiquities Act has, at times, generated controversy in its application. Canyons of the Ancients was one such example where some neighbors of the monument who opposed the notion of increased federal management objected to a monument designation. These are and should remain reminders to presidential administration that employing the Antiquities Act to protect federal lands should be done with great care and exhaustive input, namely, by ensuring public involvement in the creation of national monuments. Bishop’s bill does the opposite. The matter should stop where it is.