Unless you are a history buff or a resident of Hampton Roads, Virginia, you probably have not heard of Fort Monroe. This key Civil War site, however, is about to be thrust into the spotlight by western members of Congress anxious to keep public lands open to developers and extractive industries at all costs. This week, it is expected that one of several western conservative members will launch a legislative effort to block President Obama from protecting this priceless link to our past, as well as other places threatened by development.
Last week, hundreds of people who support protecting Fort Monroe as part of American history attended a public meeting with the National Park Service. The fort is often considered the site that marked the beginning of the end of slavery, when a Union general designated three escaped slaves as “contraband of war” and refused to return them to their Confederate owners. Following the incident, more than half a million African Americans were granted safer harbor in the Union under the “contraband of war” label.
On September 15th, the fort will become the responsibility of the state of Virginia due to an Army initiative to realign and close bases. Governor Robert McDonnell, local elected officials, Democrats and Republicans in Virginia’s congressional delegation, and all the speakers at the public meeting were supportive of designating Fort Monroe as a unit of the National Park Service, which will provide greater protection for the site. As Flo Joyner, a retired sailor told the crowd at the public meeting, “Those of us who’ve served in the Navy know what it’s like to see it from the water. C’mon, people. Write letters, write emails, lick stamps. We’ve got a little bit further to go.”
This vision of Fort Monroe as a part of our National Park System is entirely possible in the near future. With the swipe of a pen, President Obama could put the National Park Service in charge of Fort Monroe by exercising his power under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president broad authority to designate “objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments. Many national parks, including the Grand Canyon, were first designated as national monuments to provide them a greater level of protection from development. Since Theodore Roosevelt first used the Antiquities Act, 15 of 18 presidents have exercised their authority to protect some of our nation’s greatest natural and historic sites such as the Statue of Liberty, President Lincoln’s Cottage, and Giant Sequoia.
Unfortunately, Fort Monroe could be kept off that list by a few conservative western members of Congress dedicated to pushing Big Oil’s agenda. One is expected to add an amendment to do just that on a spending bill that will come to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives this week. At the start of this Congress, Rep. Dean Heller (R-NV) tried a similar move with an amendment to the spending bill for the remainder of FY 2011, H.R. 1, but his attempt narrowly failed by four votes. Since then, at least 10 different pieces of legislation were introduced to limit the president’s ability to designate new national monuments.
Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) declared that “The open-season on Montana’s land is over,” when he introduced his bill, the Montana Land Sovereignty Act, H.R. 845, which would prevent the president from designating any new monuments in Montana. “This is about standing against the insufferable arrogance of Washington, D.C. that assumes an unelected bureaucrat can make better decisions from behind a desk than the folks who live and work the land in Montana,” he elaborated. Rather than wait for his bill to move through Congress, Rep. Rehberg may circumvent the regular process and use the upcoming Interior and Environment spending bill to accomplish his goal. If he is successful, this would likely limit the president’s authority to designate national monuments anywhere in the country, not just in Montana.
The oil and gas industry has long been opposed to most policies that protect public lands by blocking or limiting industry access. The opposition to the Antiquities Act has reached a new level, however, with the backing of the Tea Party-supported Americans for Prosperity, founded by the billionaire energy tycoon David Koch. The group specifically called out the cultural policy as responsible for “locking up land in the West” in their “Running on Empty Tour.” They claim that more drilling in the West would lead to lower gas prices and that national monuments stand in the way. What the campaign does not mention is that in the Intermountain West the Bureau of Land Management has already leased 42 percent of its land to oil and gas companies, while just 1 percent are completely off limits to development. Instead of bringing down the price at the pump, oil and gas companies hold onto land in order to improve their books for shareholders.
Congressman Rehberg’s cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry is well documented. The industry was his third-highest contributor in the 2009-2010 election cycle. On the one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, Rep. Rehberg was criticized for attending a fundraiser co-hosted by BP’s director of government and public affairs. Like most of his GOP colleagues in May of this year, he once again voted to protect multibillion dollar tax breaks for big oil companies. Given this record, it comes as no surprise that he may use the spending bill to do Big Oil’s bidding once again.
What is surprising is that on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a site undeniably worthy of protection like Fort Monroe could be caught in the cross hairs of Big Oil’s fire. Fort Monroe has seen many a battle in its day, but its supporters may be caught off guard by the “insufferable arrogance” of a conservative representative from the West whose actions could dramatically impact the way this country honors and remembers one of the defining moments in its history.
Christy Goldfuss is the Public Lands Project Director at American Progress.