From the moment that President Barack Obama proclaimed Bears Ears National Monument, Rep. Rob Bishop was among the new preserve’s loudest critics. On December 4, he got his wish when President Donald Trump signed a proclamation shedding more than one million acres of slot canyons, arches, and archaeological sites from the monument.
Now, the Utah Republican’s new project is to do away with the law that created it.
“Congress never intended to give one individual the power to unilaterally dictate the manner in which all Americans may enjoy enormous swaths of America’s public lands,” he argued in one meeting of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “Unfortunately, overreach in the recent administrations has brought us to this point, and it is Congress’s duty now to clarify the law and end the abuse.”
Bishop is currently working to rally votes for House Resolution 3990, the “National Monument Creation and Protection Act”—or as opponents call it, the “No More Parks Act.” Co-sponsored by him and five other Republican respresentatives, the bill would prohibit the president from creating new national monuments larger than 85,000 acres and add a requirement that state and county officials approve their creation. Without their approval, new monuments would be limited to a tiny fraction of that size—640 acres if within 50 miles of another monument, and 5,000 if not.
HR 3990 also narrows the range of objects the act can be used to protect to human-made relics and artifacts, human or animal skeletal remains, fossils (other than fossil fuels), and certain historical buildings. This restriction would block presidents from applying the act to natural landscapes, as they have throughout its 111-year history.
'A testing ground for national parks'
Historically, national monument designations have been a kind of stepping stone to full national park status, which only Congress can provide. According to the Wilderness Society, since the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906 about one-third of national monuments have been converted to national parks, historic parks, national preserves, or other units of the National Park Service. Of the United States’ 59 national parks, 28 were first protected or expanded as national monuments.
“As a tool for setting aside lands until Congress has a chance to take a harder look, the Antiquities Act has been highly successful. It was and continues to be a testing ground for national parks,” says Mark Squillace, professor of law at the University of Colorado Law School and author of several reports on the history and uses of the act.
An analysis by the Center for Western Priorities found more than 180 prior uses of the Antiquities Act would have been “impossible or extremely unlikely” had HR 3990 been law at the time. On the list are such popular parks as Grand Canyon, Devils Tower, Denali, Death Valley, Zion, and Arches.
By failing to pass legislation to create new national parks or wilderness areas, argues Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Congress has forced the executive branch to use to the Antiquities Act as its only option for preserving wild places.
“Bills to designate new conservation areas, new wilderness, new wild and scenic areas, new habitat, new sacred sites are introduced Congress after Congress and are ignored,” Grijalva said when the bill was first introduced. “They are ignored because they run counter to industry plans to maximize profits by drilling and mining on every inch of land belonging to the American people.”
The bill allows for emergency designations “to prevent imminent and irreparable harm” to the objects. But they only last one year, and can’t be renewed.
Anti-monument arguments predate the Antiquities Act
New monuments and parks alike have long met fierce resistance from surrounding communities. Yellowstone was called “a great blow struck at the prosperity” of nearby towns. One Arizona newspaper called the campaign to shut miners, cattle ranchers, and railroads out of the Grand Canyon “a fiendish and diabolical scheme.” When a swath of Washington’s Douglas fir and red cedar trees received protection from logging, a Seattle tax commissioner declared “[we] would be fools to let a lot of foolish sentimentalists tie up the resources of the Olympic Peninsula in order to preserve its scenery.”
Now, those three parks attract millions of visitors annually, infusing surroundings towns with hundreds of millions of dollars and creating thousands of jobs. In a more recent example, Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, created by Obama in 2013, saw a 40 percent increase in visitors a year after its designation. Its surrounding communities reported an 8.3 percent increase in accommodations and food revenue, and 21 percent increase in lodger’s tax revenue.
Attitudes toward some parks have changed over time as well. On the 50 anniversary of Canyonlands—originally a highly controversial park—Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and three of the four members of Utah’s congressional delegation, including Bishop, wrote to President Barack Obama: “We owe a debt of gratitude to people, both elected officials and citizens, who recognized the value of Canyonlands and worked to create the park 50 years ago.”
Yet criticisms of protected areas as business-killers remain. Trump and Zinke have both called outdoor recreationists and gear companies who advocate for national monuments “special interest groups” whose preservation campaigns amount to hanging a closed sign on the gates.
“No one loves public land more than I, but what I do love is public lands being available for the benefit and the enjoyment of the people,” Zinke said on a conference call the day after Trump’s announcement of changes to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. “We disagree vehemently on shutting roads down, shutting access down.” He went on to argue that using the act to preserve dark skies, biological diversity, and wilderness were all examples of government overreach.
Conservative think-tanks' fight against the Antiquities Act
For some, reducing Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 46 percent wasn’t nearly enough. The National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think-tank that supports reducing the power of the Antiquities Act, has called for the complete revocation of those and other recently proclaimed units.
“Just trimming around the edges, as Secretary Zinke has proposed, won’t do,” Bonner Cohen, a National Center for Public Policy Research senior fellow, said in a statement.
In a letter to Trump signed by a variety of trade groups and free-market associations, they called the use of the law to protect thousands of acres of wilderness “a complete distortion of the Antiquities Act’s original intent.”
The Heritage Foundation, another conservative think-tank, has similarly targeted the act, but makes a financial case. Presidents have designated national monuments even as federal budgets have proved insufficient for “proper care and management,” the foundation charged in a 2015 report. Federal ownership of land, the report continues, has resulted in “environmental degradation of America’s national monuments and parks, billions of dollars in maintenance backlogs, lost economic opportunity, and concentration of power in Washington.” The solution, they argue, is to put federal land under the control of state, local, and private groups.
Opponents of that financial argument point out that the backlog has accrued through maintenance that concessionaires have not completed at the hotels and other amenities they operate within parks, as well as road repairs that should have fallen under transportation budgets.
Others say that the government’s sale of oil and gas leases for rock-bottom prices proves that there’s more money to be had for public lands.
“They’re kind of giving away publicly owned resources to companies, and at the same time they’re saying ‘Oh we can’t afford to manage for conservation,’—and it seems like a real disingenuous set of arguments,” says Jesse Prentice-Dunn, with the Center for Western Priorities.
While Zinke has been adamant that drilling and mining didn’t play a role in the monument reductions, a report by The Washington Post found “high-to-moderate oil and gas development potential” in the area cut from Bears Ears National Monument, as well as sites for potential uranium mines. Grand Staircase-Escalante sits astride coal reserves.
Riders and backlash
One possible way that the “National Monument Creation and Protection Act” could become law is as a rider to another, larger piece of legislation. The new tax plan passed in December, for example, included a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
“They’re going to keep hammering at this, and at some point, some iteration of it could pass,” says Prentice-Dunn, with the Center for Western Priorities. “This has been going on for years, but it’s not going away.”
If the bill passes, at least a few of Bears Ears’ critics may feel the effects. Zinke himself has proposed creating a new monument at Badger Two Medicine in his home state of Montana. The site sits in the Crown of the Continent, a 130,000-acre piece of the northern Rocky Mountains near Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and the Blackfeet Nation, who have long used the area for prayer and other ceremonies. Badger Two Medicine is also home to grizzly bears, cutthroat trout, and more than 40,000 acres of oil and gas leases that have faced court challenges.
“I think there’s a great opportunity with Badger Two Medicine,” Zinke said. “As the number of crowds and visitors continue to break records in Glacier, here’s a virtually untapped area to do it right, to generate some income through tourism, a greater understanding of the culture, and it just sits in one of the places of our country that I think is deserving of monument status.”
Were the “National Monument Creation and Protection Act” to become law, it would block the creation of a monument to protect this landscape, too.