Responding to President Obama’s decision last week to protect a stretch of California’s Coast near Point Arena as a new national monument, the House of Representatives is planning to vote next week to overturn a 108 year-old law that presidents of both parties have used to protect iconic American places, including the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and Arches National Park.
The bill, H.R. 1459, aims to block presidents from using the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish new national monuments by putting caps on how many times it can be used, requiring congressional review of proposed monuments, and forcing local communities to engage in an ironic exercise of reviewing the environmental impacts of protecting lands for future generations.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), criticized President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act to expand the California Coastal Monument last week as an end-run around Congress. “In other words, the House was punked by the President,” said Bishop.
However, despite arguments from Bishop and Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) that Congress should hold exclusive power to decide whether or not to protect public lands, the House has effectively shut down all legislative efforts to protect wilderness, parks and monuments since the Tea Party takeover in 2010.
Until the passage of a bill to protect wilderness lands in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore last week, Congress had not protected a single new acre of public lands since 2009, the longest such drought since World War II. Adding injury to insult, Congress also forced a 16-day government shutdown last fall that cost national parks and local communities 8 million lost visitors and $414 million in lost visitor spending.
Coupled with the ongoing freeze on new parks and public lands bills, a vote next week to block the President’s creation of new monuments and park units would represent the endorsement of a de facto “No More National Parks” policy in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although members of the House could be casting controversial votes next week against new monuments and parks, H.R. 1459 is not expected to be considered by or passed in the Senate. The President would also be likely to veto such a bill.
The vote — set to coincide with the one year anniversary of President Obama’s establishment of monuments honoring Harriet Tubman and Colonel Charles P. Young (with the support of Republicans and Democrats in Congress) — would also stymie a growing effort to protect sites that honor women, the LBGT community, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and other communities that are currently under-represented among national parks and monuments.
According to recent public opinion research, a “No More National Parks” policy would likely be deeply unpopular with voters who are still frustrated by the government shutdown and by long-standing budget cuts to parks and conservation programs.
A November, 2013, survey commissioned by the Center for American Progress found that:
By a margin of more than three-to-one, voters believe that leaders in Washington should be creating new parks and expanding opportunities for Americans to get outdoors, instead of closing national parks and cutting budgets for public lands.
A separate survey, commissioned jointly by Republican and Democratic polling firms, found that nearly seven in ten voters in the West say they are “more likely to vote for a candidate who supports enhancing protections for some public lands, like national forests,” suggesting that, in addition to its policy impacts, the political impacts of next week’s vote may stretch into November.
Matt Lee-Ashley is a Senior Fellow with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. Follow him on Twitter @MLeeAshley.