Rehberg Plans A New Assault On The Antiquities Act And American Heritage

By Tom Kenworthy, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT)

In a few days when the full House of Representatives takes up a spending bill for the Department of Interior, Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT) is planning to introduce an amendment that would prevent President Obama from creating any new national monuments. No doubt there will be lots of nonsensical talk from the GOP about federal land grabs and abuses of executive power.

But the real story is that for more than a century, the Antiquities Act — which allows presidents to unilaterally create monuments — has proven a valuable tool to protect important public land sites from commercial development and provide for sustained economic growth over time.

The 1906 Antiquities Act gives the president broad authority to create national monuments from existing parcels of federal land has been used by 15 presidents from both parties since Theodore Roosevelt signed the law. It is a favorite whipping boy of western know-nothings who fancy themselves the descendants of the failed Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s.

In western states where the federal government manages vast tracts of forest and range, it’s easy to score cheap political points by resorting to anti-government demagoguery, as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) did when he called the 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah “the mother of all land grabs.” Rehberg, who is running for the U.S. Senate, is the sponsor or co-sponsor of three bills that would block presidential monument designations unless approved by Congress.

For a true picture of the value of the Antiquities Act and the executive power that has saved some of our most spectacular landscapes and most important historic and cultural sites over the past century, the House has only to look at what took place yesterday in Hampton, Virginia. There, at the Hampton Roads Convention Center, hundreds of ordinary people attended public meetings to push for federal preservation of Fort Monroe, a military installation with a 400-year history including a vital role in the Civil War and the drive to end slavery.

But time is running out to preserve this historic site, and a presidential designation as a national monument is the best option for preserving Fort Monroe until Congress can act and make it a national park.

There is ample precedent for a presidential monument designation as an interim step in making a prized area a national park. Some of our most important parks –- including Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, and Acadia -– were protected as monuments until Congress could formally make them national parks.

But the expected Interior appropriations bill amendment from Rehberg would make it impossible to do that, not just for Fort Monroe but for other cherished federal properties that deserve high levels of protection from commercial exploitation.

Earlier this year, the House narrowly rejected, 209-213, an amendment to a stopgap spending bill that would have prohibited the president from creating national monuments in the future. With Fort Monroe’s future hanging in the balance, the House should again reject any attempts to limit or scuttle the presidential authority to designate national monuments.

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