The House Natural Resources Committee advanced legislation Wednesday that would limit the power of presidents to designate public land as national monuments.
The National Monument Creation and Protection Act, moved by a 23-17 vote, would overhaul the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president unilateral power to protect structures of "historic and scientific interest."
"Congress never intended to give one individual the power to unilaterally dictate the manner in which all Americans may enjoy enormous swaths of our nation's public lands," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the committee chairman who authored the legislation. "Designations are no longer made for scientific reasons or archaeological value but for political purposes. Unfortunately, overreach in recent administrations has brought us to this point and it is Congress' duty to clarify the law and end the abuse."
Republicans have been eager to change the monument designation process because they believe former President Barack Obama abused the authority as a way to put hundreds of thousands of acres of public land under federal control and limit its recreational and agricultural use.
While Republicans complained about Obama's use of the law, many Democrats endorsed the designation and expansion of monuments, and said it provides needed protection to some of the nation's pristine landscapes, culturally important places and threatened animal and plant habitats.
"The Antiquities Act allows a president who values natural and cultural resources to protect them for future generations, at least until Congress can come along and provide legislative solutions," said Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the committee's top Democrat. "Rather than consider those specific legislative solutions, the majority seeks to destroy the Antiquities Act itself. Polling data shows that national monuments are popular overwhelmingly. National monuments are not a problem that we need to solve."
Bishop's bill would subject monument designations made by presidents to increasingly stringent rules based on size.
For example, the bill would mandate a federal environmental review process to designate any monument more than 640 acres. Proposed new monument designations between 5,000 and 10,000 acres would need a more detailed environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
The legislation also would give the public and local officials more input into the decisions.
Monument designations between 10,000 and 85,000 acres would have to be approved by all county commissions, state legislatures, and governors in the area.
Finally, the legislation would bar presidents from designating marine national monuments "with no archeological or historic sites in need of protection."
Separately on Tuesday, the Natural Resources Committee considered a resolution authored by Grijalva requiring Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to disclose more information about his review of recent national monument designations. The measure did not advance.
President Trump ordered the Interior Department to undertake a review of 27 national monuments shortly after his inauguration. Zinke issued a report to Trump in August, but it was not made public. The White House has not acted on the review.
A memo leaked to the media revealed that Zinke recommends shrinking or changing the boundaries of six national monuments and proposes management changes to four others that could reopen areas to logging, cattle grazing and commercial fishing.
The Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is perhaps the most contentious one Zinke pegs for a size reduction.
Obama created Bears Ears in December, just before he left office, protecting 1.35 million acres of mesas and canyons in Utah's poorest county. It is an area that five Native American tribes consider sacred.
Environmental and conservation groups as well as Native Americans have threatened to sue the Trump administration if it scales back the monuments. Supporters of the monuments note the Antiquities Act does not explicitly give authority to presidents to reduce the size of national monuments, although some have done so on a limited scale. The concept has not been tested in court.
"It is clear that President Trump does not have the authority to destroy Bears Ears or any existing national monument," Grijalva said.
Bishop's legislation would clarify the authority of the president to reduce the size of national monuments.
It specifies that reductions greater than 85,000 acres must be approved by the affected counties, state legislatures, and governors and must have a NEPA analysis.