National monuments & parks under attack in new bill

Lone photographer in Death Valley National Park, CA

Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society

A bill introduced Jan. 13, 2015 would undermine presidents’ greatest tool for protecting natural or historic landmarks, threatening a century-old bipartisan tradition.

Legislation introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-AK) would add arbitrary obstacles to the process of designating national monuments under the Antiquities Act. Since its approval by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, that law has been used on a bipartisan basis by 16 presidents, serving as an important contingency plan for when Congress is unable to act swiftly to protect public lands—oftentimes even in the face of broad public support.

The new bill, H.R. 330, is only the latest in a series of efforts to weaken this last line of defense, despite the fact that the Antiquities Act remains popular among Americans at-large. A new Hart Research poll found that 90 percent of voters support presidential proposals to “permanently protect some public lands [like] monuments, wildlife refuge areas, wilderness” and 69 percent oppose efforts to “stop creation of new national parks, wilderness areas, and monuments.”

“Our parks and national monuments are the fabric of America,” said Matt Keller, national monuments campaign director at The Wilderness Society. “This bill is tone-deaf to what the American people are asking of their elected officials and says, in effect, that our nation doesn’t need any more national parks and conservation lands.”

Many of our most cherished public sites, from the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon, were first protected as monuments under the Antiquities Act. In 2014 alone, President Barack Obama used the law to create Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument (New Mexico) and San Gabriel Mountains National Monument (California) and expand two existing monuments in California and the Pacific Ocean.

Chiefly due to partisan gridlock, protecting land through Congress has been extraordinarily difficult in the last few years. This has made the Antiquities Act doubly important as a way for presidents to fill the leadership void. Unfortunately, some in Washington have resorted to attacking the venerable law itself—culminating in last March’s House-passed bill intended to choke the monument-designation process with bureaucratic hurdles.

But even in that dark moment, there was a sliver of hope. The bill passed by only a narrow margin, with members of both parties in opposition. A couple of months prior, more than 100 members of the House had signed on to a letter supporting the president’s authority to designate national monuments. Conservation does still have friends in Congress—and we hope they make their voices loud and clear in opposition to this bill.