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UPDATED | Congressman Introduces Legislation To Extensively Rewrite Antiquities Act


Editor's note: This updates with reaction from the National Parks Conservation Association.

A Utah congressman long unhappy with the authority given presidents under The Antiquities Act to establish national monuments has introduced legislation that would extensively rewrite the century-old act. If enacted, the rewrite would limit the purposes for which monuments could be created, require environmental review of proposed designations, and allow presidents to reduce the size of monuments without congressional action.

The measure was immediately rejected by the National Parks Conservation Association, which called it frivolous.

“If Mr. (Rob) Bishop wants to be taken seriously about his concerns on the Antiquities Act, this is not the bill to accomplish that," said Ani Kameenui, NPCA's legislative director, during a phone call. "It's a nonstarter."

Passed by Congress in 1906, The Antiquities Act has been used by presidents down through the decades to designate national monuments to protect "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" that are found on federal lands. Monuments designated via the act and which later became national parks include Grand Canyon, Arches, Grand Teton, Acadia, Bryce Canyon, and Olympic.

In recent years, though, some Republicans in Congress and some Western states have bristled over the act, claiming it gives presidents too much authority over lands they could better manage. Shortly after he took office this year, President Donald Trump agreed, saying his predecessors had exerted "another egregious abuse of federal power" under the act.

"The previous administration used a 100-year-old law known as The Antiquities Act to unilaterally put millions of acres of land and water under strict federal control. Eliminating the ability of the people who actually live in those states to decide how best to use that land," President Trump said in late April when he directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review 27 monuments created by Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton to determine whether they had taken advantage of the act and created overly large monuments.

Though he traveled to just eight of the 27 monuments, Secretary Zinke in August sent a report to President Trump that recommended that 10 of the monuments be modified, either through boundary changes or to allow resource extraction. The president has yet to act on the report, and it's expected that any attempt to change boundaries or uses permitted in monuments will be challenged in court.

While that has yet to play out, U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, on Monday introduced legislation (attached below) to drastically rewrite the act. As drafted, the measure would affect the purposes for which the act could be wielded, place limitations on the size of new monuments, require National Environmental Policy Act review of proposed monuments and, in cases of monuments between 10,000 acres and 85,000 acres in size, require approval "by the elected governing body of each county (or county equivalent), the legislature of each State, and the Governor of each State."

While Congressman Bishop's legislation would allow for the "emergency" declaration of a monument to "prevent imminent and irreparable harm to the object or objects of antiquity to be protected by the designation," the designation would expire after one year and the land could not later be redesignated. It was not clear if his intention was to let a state's congressional delegation later introduce legislation to protect such areas if they thought it worthwhile.

Additionally, Rep. Bishop wants presidents to have the authority to reduce the size of any monument by up to 85,000 acres, and to be able to make a larger reduction if it's endorsed by state officials. Such language would seem to make it clear that the congressman agrees that presidents currently don't have such authority.

Furthermore, Rep. Bishop's legislation would block any new national monument from acquiring reserved water rights without state approval.

“The 1906 Antiquities Act was originally intended as an executive tool to protect historical and archaeological artifacts and structures under threat," Rep. Bishop said. "Regrettably, this worthy goal has been manipulated for ulterior political purposes. Today the Act is too often used as an excuse for presidents to unilaterally lock up vast tracts of public land without any mechanism for people to provide input or voice concerns. This is wrong. This legislation provides for accountability in the Act’s uses. It modernizes the law to restore its intent, allowing for the protection of actual antiquities without disenfranchisement of local voices and perspectives. It standardizes and limits the president’s power to reshape monuments."

At NPCA, Ms. Kameenui said the legislation was not a "rational approach" to revisiting how the act is wielded. She noted the legislation would remove wording that would allow presidents to protect "historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest." Instead, Congressman Bishop's wording would allow only for "object or objects of antiquity" to be protected through a monument designation.

That led the NPCA official to wonder whether the Republican was trying to prevent Civil Rights sites, such as Stonewall National Monument in New York or Freedom Riders National Monument in Alabama, from being protected in the future.

"Suddenly we’re questioning just how valuable is the American story," said Ms. Kameenui.

Rep. Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, has scheduled a committee meeting for Wednesday at 4 p.m. to markup both his legislation as well as a resolution offered by Rep. Raul Grijalva, the committee's ranking Democrat, and 25 colleagues. That resolution asks the Trump administration to turn over "every document, map, survey, report, record, memorandum, call log, correspondence (electronic and otherwise), and other communication or any portion of any such communication, that refers or relates to the executive order on the review of designations under the Antiquities Act."

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Rep. Bishop, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. Well, I guess we know where this is going, don't we!

His actions seem to always have a negative effect on the body and spirit of the NPS, but sometimes I don't know if he is actively trying to hurt the Parks or if he just wants to demonstrate his power.

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