A new bill would restrict the power granted to a president by the Antiquities Act to create national monuments, like the Colorado National Monument shown here. Photo by Todd Petrie. Used under the CC BY 2.0 license.

In a straight party-line vote this week in the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, Congressional Republicans advanced a new bill that would strictly limit presidential authority to declare National Monuments under the federal Antiquities Act of 1906.

While some rural organizations and legislators support curtailing the monuments as an “over-reach of federal government authority,” others believe that designating monuments has benefitted rural communities.

The bill was introduced on October 6th and moved quickly through the committee mark-up process by Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT).

“Congress never intended to give one individual the power to unilaterally seize enormous swathes of our nation’s public lands,” Representative Bishop wrote in a statement supporting the legislation. “Our problem isn’t President Obama or President Trump. It’s the underlying law – a statute that provides authority to dictate national monument decisions in secrecy and without public input. The only path to the accountability we all seek – no matter which party controls the White House – is to amend the Act itself.”

Utah Republican Representative Rob Bishop.

Some key provisions of the Bishop bill, according to the Representative’s office, are:

  • Cap the land area a president may unilaterally declare to be a National Monument to 640 acres.
  • Restrict monument designation in some cases when a proposed monument is with 50 miles of an existing monument.
  • Require local elected officials, state legislators, and governors to approve National Monument status for larger blocks of land.
  • Add environmental assessments to the approval process for some proposed National Monuments (Currently, all monument designations are exempt from the National Environmental Protection Act impact process.)
  • Give the president the authority to create one-time temporary National Monument protections for areas that are under threat of “imminent and irreparable harm.”

The Farm Bureau, the nation’s largest agricultural lobbying group, supports the changes to the Antiquities Act.

“We strongly oppose the ongoing misuse of the Antiquities Act by the executive branch and request your administration to work swiftly to resolve these conflicts and work with Congress to pass legislation to improve accountability and transparency in the designation of national monuments. Such reform will ensure that the will of local communities is respected and true American antiquities can be protected,” the group wrote, along with 18 other timber, mining and grazing support organizations.

Other groups say that National Monument designation, and public land protections in general, are critical ingredients to thriving rural economies.

“Rather than undermining the Antiquities Act and putting federally-protected lands in jeopardy, Washington should be focusing on creating new parks, expanding outdoor recreational opportunities and helping protect the public lands that draw in visitors and give an economic boost to their communities,” John Arensmeyer, founder and CEO of Small Business Majority, stated in an email.

“Small business owners—who account for nearly half of all private-sector employment in this country—understand the connection between the preservation of public lands and the benefit that brings to their local economies and their bottom lines.”

Small Business Majority conducted an in-depth study of monuments created under the Obama Administration, finding large business growth in places with new monuments, particularly in rural communities. In the 10 monuments studied, the group found a total economic impact of $156 million per year, driving approximately $58 million in labor income and supporting approximately 1,820 jobs annually.

Other entrepreneurs, such as rural Ketchum, Idaho’s First Lite, say accessible public lands help their companies draw talent and employees. “When we’re recruiting for talented employees nationwide, we don’t compete on pay alone,” said First Lite’s Ryan Callaghan. “We live in a beautiful space with access to millions and millions of acres of public lands. It’s everybody’s backyard, an intrinsic part of our rural way of life here.”

Callaghan says that First Lite opposes legislative proposals to roll back the Antiquities Act for those reasons, and because their outdoor clothing is tied to hunters and fishermen who use public lands.

Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research groups that studies economic trends in the West, has repeatedly tracked economic performance of rural communities. Headwaters reports that, “while the results showing continued growth in nearby communities do not demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship, the findings do show that national monuments are consistent with economic growth in adjacent local communities.”

National Monument designation is one tool that presidents have used since Teddy Roosevelt to wade into the land management debate. Monument designation can be used for historic preservation, to save Native American cultural resources, to steer commercial development, and to limit the impact of activities such as mining. Protections are specific to each monument, and multi-use protections are the norm for the Western states’ largest monuments. Fifteen of the 17 on a Headwaters list of monuments allow grazing. Others allow existing timber harvest agreements to be honored. And most allow motorized vehicles, hunting, fishing, and other recreation use, and allow access to inholdings.

With monument designation, rural communities often look to cash in on tourism as a critical economic driver. The outdoor recreation economy supports 7.6 million American jobs and $887 billion in consumer spending annually, according to the annual report from the Outdoor Industry Association. The industry generated $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue in 2016. The recreation economy is larger than key economic sectors of education, gasoline and fuels, motor vehicle, and pharmaceuticals.

The bill could now move to the full House of Representatives for a floor vote. It is not clear whether the proposal will continue moving through the legislative process.

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