Capitol Hill seems to be in the grip of national monument hysteria. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced a flurry of bills to limit or end presidential authority to designate areas of federal land as national monuments, an executive power that’s been in place—and used extensively by presidents of both parties—for more than a century.
Sponsors of the bills are engaging in over-the-top alarmism by raising the specter of a pending “land grab” by the Obama administration and portraying their efforts as a heroic state homeland defense against an out-of-control central government. They couch their arguments in terms of “state sovereignty” and assert that extending greater land conservation measures—to areas the federal government already manages—will harm local economies by limiting commercial uses of public land.
Some of this is not unexpected in the run-up to the 2012 election. Some of the sponsors—Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT), for example—face tough election fights. But it also represents a fundamental misreading of the long history of federal land management and overlooks the solid record of protected public lands bolstering local economic vitality.
Presidents have had the authority to designate federal lands as national monuments since Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Antiquities Act in 1906. That law gives presidents wide discretion to create monuments from areas having “historic or scientific interest.”
President Roosevelt, a Republican who left an unparalleled legacy of land conservation, embraced the Antiquities Act with his usual gusto. He quickly protected Devils Tower in Wyoming as the first national monument, and before his presidency ended he named 17 others covering more than a million acres in nine states. Among them were the Grand Canyon, later elevated to a national park, of which Roosevelt famously said: “Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it.”
Since President Roosevelt’s time 14 other presidents have used the Antiquities Act, often to provide interim protections to notable landscapes until Congress could protect them as national parks. Parks have greater protections than monuments, more stature, and are generally better staffed and funded. For instance, hunting is not allowed in national parks.
Nearly three dozen of the 127 monuments created under the Antiquities Act were given national park status by Congress. They include some of our most important parks, from Acadia on the Maine coast to Arches and Bryce Canyon in Utah, Grand Teton in Wyoming, Joshua Tree in California, and Denali in Alaska.
Roosevelt wasn’t the only president who vigorously used the power conferred by the Antiquities Act. President Jimmy Carter protected 56 million acres in Alaska on a single day in 1978. President Bill Clinton used the power to establish a solid land conservation legacy, creating 19 monuments including the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. And President George W. Bush created the largest monument: an 89 million acre marine reserve in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
But the Antiquities Act and its use by presidents has often been controversial even though it is well established and vital to our land conservation heritage. This is particularly true in the West where federal ownership of vast tracts in many states is a recurring political flash point.
Utah Sen. Wallace Bennett called President Lyndon Johnson’s actions a “last gasp attempt to embalm a little more land in the West” when he used the act to expand Arches and Capitol Reef national monuments before they became national parks in 1969. And Sen. Orrin Hatch denounced President Clinton’s protection of the Grand Staircase-Escalante as “the mother of all land grabs” without ever explaining how the federal government could grab its own land.
In fact, it is memories of the 1996 creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante that seem to inspire some of the current congressional efforts to restrict presidential authority under the Antiquities Act. Adding fuel to the congressional fire is a 2010 internal Bureau of Land Management memo containing ideas for expanding the agency’s land conservation efforts including areas that might be considered for monument designation.
But history often shows that today’s land grab evolves into tomorrow’s economic success story. In Utah, where the antimonument fervor is particularly strong, the monuments that later became national parks now support more than 7,000 jobs and annually attract more than 6.6 million visitors who spend $407 million a year.
Also in Utah, the communities surrounding the Grand Staircase-Escalante have seen a 38 percent increase in jobs and a 40 percent increase in real personal income since its designation.
And in Northern Arizona, the communities near the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument saw their population grow by 34 percent and their jobs and personal income increase by 44 percent in the eight years following its designation in 2000.
Among the bills pending in Congress that would limit or end presidential authority to designate national monuments are:
- H.R. 845, H.R. 846, and S. 144 that would prohibit presidential monument creations in Montana, Idaho, and Nevada without the express approval of Congress.
- H.R. 758 and S. 407 that would require the president to notify Congress before designating monuments and void any declaration if it is not approved by Congress within two years after a presidential designation.
- H.R. 817 and S. 122 that would make all presidential monument designations subject to congressional approval. Congressional approval is currently required for monument designations only in Wyoming (a law that passed after Grand Teton was designated) and in Alaska (if more than 5,000 acres)
- H.R. 302 that would require state approval by the governor and legislature before a president could designate a national monument.
Congress should take the long view as it begins work on these bills. The historical record is clear: Monument designations generally stand the test of time. They become popular additions to our heritage of protected federal lands and important drivers for local and regional economies.
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.