Imagine a Democratic president, so weak he would sign a bill that would take away his power, and the power of future presidents, to take bold action to preserve the nation’s natural treasures.
That’s the premise behind House Republican efforts to rein in the 1906 Antiquities Act. At a time when it seems neither Congress nor the White House can get much done, Western Republicans are seeking to stop President Barack Obama from using the executive power that Theodore Roosevelt used to protect the Grand Canyon. This might seem to be a planned lost-cause aimed at working up their base in the rural West.
But I think Republicans have hope despite the wide popularity of this law that has protected so much of the nation’s crown jewels. After all, this is an administration that went along with delisting wolves in Congress, that backed off its Wild Lands initiative after pressure from Congress, and then this month dropped new tougher ozone air pollution regulations.
The GOP narrative goes something like this: in 2010 fiends in the Interior Department nefariously and disingenuously put together a Treasured Landscapes memo with 14 areas of public land this administration should target to kill jobs and end multiple use in communities across the West. Along with that former DOI Secretary Bruce Babbitt urged President Obama to use the Antiquities Act as a tool to lock up millions of acres of public lands.
“In light of these ongoing efforts, it is essential that Utah and other western states put in place a measure similar to that of Wyoming to ensure that the Antiquities Act cannot be used to destroy livelihoods in an effort to fulfill political agendas,” said House National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican.
States evidence for this case was President Clinton’s surprise campaign announcement in September of 1996 he would use the Antiquities Act to establish the 1.8 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Utah Republicans have never gotten over what they considered an abusive use of the law.
Babbitt himself made sure in 2000, when he was pushing for a series of national monuments across the West, including an addition to Idaho’s Craters of the Moon, that he did not repeat the 1996 action. He worked with Congress and local communities to get buy-in for the 18 monuments Clinton established in 2000 and 2001.
The Babbitt narrative is that all of national monuments that have been set aside by Presidents, from Devil’s Tower in Wyoming in 1906 to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006 have been popular nationally from the time they are made and especially later.
“The best way to defend the Antiquities Act is for the president to use it,” Babbitt said.
From a political and historical standpoint Obama would be careful about giving ground on this presidential power. The only two states where Congress has the veto power that Bishop and Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador want for their states over Antiquities designations are Wyoming and Alaska.
Wyoming got its exemption in 1950 when Grand Teton National Park was approved, greatly expanding the national monument there over the objections of Wyoming. Alaska got its exemption in 1980 when the Alaska Lands Act created 79 million acres of national parks, wilderness and wildlife refuges. The law replaced the 56 million acres of national monuments President Jimmy Carter locked up in 1978 after Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus’ recommendation.
Following these examples, Obama would first designate large, perhaps locally unpopular, national monuments in one or all of the states before giving in to an exemption. I’m sure that’s not what Bishop and other Republicans who have been pressing this issue expect.