House considers bill to prohibit national monuments that protect oceans

It would place extreme restrictions on creating new national parks -- unless the president wanted to make monuments smaller.

A hiker walks on a rock formation known as The Wave in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brian Witte
A hiker walks on a rock formation known as The Wave in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brian Witte

The full House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday is marking up a bill that would limit the president’s authority to protect historic places and landscapes.

H.R. 3990, introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), who chairs the committee, would radically re-imagine the Antiquities Act – the law allowing presidents to create national monuments — by imposing acreage caps, narrowing the definition of what deserves protection, and prohibiting national monuments that protect oceans, among other restrictions.

Though Bishop posits that the bill is aimed at restoring what was “originally intended” by the Antiquities Act, many of its provisions would have prevented the protection many of the original national monuments.

new study by the Center for Western Priorities finds that more than 180 parks and monuments would have been impossible or extremely unlikely to protect had Rep. Bishop’s bill been law at the time. Notably, the very first national monument designated by Teddy Roosevelt, Devil’s Tower, would not have been legal.  Other iconic national parks that were originally monuments, like the Grand Canyon and Acadia, would have been deemed outside the scope of the Act under Bishop’s new definition. 

Nearly half of all national parks in the United States today were initially protected through the Antiquities Act.

“If the rules proposed in this bill would have been in place in the original Antiquities Act, Americans would not be lucky enough to have Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon or Capitol Reef National Parks today—all of which were first protected as national monuments,” said Jen Ujifusa, legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “This is another extreme attack against our public lands from the very congressional delegation that should instead be taking pride in protecting them.”

The committee will also address another bill, a resolution of inquiry filed by Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ) and 25 other House Democrats, aimed at getting the administration to provide Congress with more information about Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s national monument review and report. Zinke has come under fire recently for the secret nature of his report which would significantly reduce at least four national monuments.

“The Trump administration wants to wipe out our national monuments without an explanation or plan,” Grijalva, the ranking member of the committee, said in a statement. “The truth is that Secretary Zinke is choosing to appease his special interest friends instead of listening to the American people, and the [resolution] will prove just that.”

Ironically, Bishop’s bill undercuts many of the recommendations made in the leaked version of Zinke’s report as well as the Trump Administration’s overall agenda on national monuments.

The bill includes language that gives the president the ability to shrink national monuments designated by previous presidents. The inclusion appears to implicitly admit that the president does not currently have that authority. It is an interesting choice for Bishop, who has repeatedly asked the administration to reduce the size many national monuments.

“The only thing worth applauding with this bill is that Chairman Bishop has finally joined the overwhelming majority of legal experts in recognizing the President lacks the authority to reduce protections for existing national monuments, like Bears Ears,” Dan Hartinger, deputy director of parks and public lands defense at The Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “The introduction of this bill and the misguided provision to authorize boundary reductions via Executive Order makes it clear that even the Chairman recognizes that attempts to rollback national monument boundaries would be illegal under the current law.”

Both bills will receive a vote during the meeting, scheduled for Wednesday at 4 p.m.


Update: Bishop’s Antiquities Act bill passed committee on a partisan vote of 23-17. Grijalva’s resolution failed along the same lines.