By: Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT)
Chairman, House Committee on Natural Resources
October 11, 2017
In a Tuesday op-ed, I explained the constitutional threat posed by the Antiquities Act, and why its repeated abuse is inconsistent with the constitutional pillars of the rule of law and checks and balances. As it turns out, there's a reason the Founders chose these principles as the basis of our government: arbitrary rule has no incentive to be accountable to the people that policies affect. Without that accountability, political and ideological manipulation corrodes the balance of power.
Some of the most egregious abuses – the use of the Antiquities Act as a political weapon – happened under President Bill Clinton's administration.
In 1996, prior to the designation of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah, Clinton's then-Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality Katie McGinty stated the following, "I'm increasingly of the view that we should just drop these utah [sic] ideas. we [sic] do not really know how the enviros will react and I do think there is a danger of 'abuse' of the withdraw/antiquities authorities especially because these lands are not really endangered."
Could there be any clearer statement of the prioritization of political ideology over the will of people?
The monument was designated in the waning months of Clinton's re-election campaign. Its total acreage: 1.7 million -- three times the size of Rhode Island. No town halls, no public meetings, and no public comment sessions were ever held in Utah. No input was solicited from local stakeholders or land managers in the area. Utah's governor, congressional delegation, public officials, and residents from across the state all expressed outrage at the lack of prior consultation or warning of the designation. In what feels like symbolism, the proclamation wasn't even signed in Utah; it was signed in Arizona.
This story is one of many blatant abuses of the Antiquities Act.
The Trump administration is currently reviewing previous designations to ensure they're consistent with the law's intent. Without President Trump having even exercised his authority under the law, Democrats are making every attempt to force the release of the administration's ongoing deliberations. In a rich irony, for the first time, they are demanding that local communities have a voice in the president's use of the Antiquities Act.
"Let's see some transparency and public accountability," House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., recently said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. said, "The public deserves better than predetermined political conclusions." The executive must "listen to and work with local communities," he added.
If only their thirst for accountability had made an appearance when previous administrations, in processes shrouded in secrecy, brushed aside the objections of local communities in Utah and other states.
Nonetheless, for those of us who have fought to bring some level of accountability to the law's use, this newfound desire for it is welcome. Ironically, it is also an admission of the act's underlying failures.
Last week, I introduced legislation to correct these failures and permanently address my colleagues' concerns. The National Monument Creation and Protection Act would, like the writers of the Antiquities Act intended, allow the president to unilaterally designate land up to 640 acres. Monument designations between 640 and 10,000 acres would be subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Designations between 10,000 and 85,000 acres would be required to obtain the approval of all county commissioners, state legislatures, and governors in the affected area. The bill also standardizes and limits the president's power to reshape monuments.
No longer would we have to blindly trust any president to do the right thing. These provisions ensure consultation with locals and robust scientific evaluation through public processes that would be required by law. It strengthens the president's authority to protect actual antiquities without the threat of disenfranchising people.
If my Democratic colleagues are serious about their calls for accountability, they will support this bill. Together, we have an opportunity to place people over politics and the rule of law over tyranny.
The Antiquities Act was created with noble intent, tailored for specific uses and limited circumstances. Let us restore this intent and enshrine that vision in law.