When it Comes to Wildlife, Clamping Down on New National Monuments is a Bad Idea

Pinnacles National Park, the beneficiary of the Antiquities Act | Photo: Miguel Viera/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A measure that would severely limit the ability of the White House to designate new national monuments took another step forward Tuesday, as it moved out of a House committee in a 6-3 vote and onto the House floor. H.R. 1459 would impose strict limits on designations of new national monuments by the Executive Branch under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows presidents to protect appropriate pieces of public land without Congressional authorization.

If the new law passes, presidents could designate no more than one National Monument per four-year term without approval from Congress. New national monuments of more than 5,000 acres would require a lengthy environmental analysis, including an assessment of costs of managing each new Monument.

The bill, in essence, would gut one of the most powerful legal tools California wildlife has at its disposal.

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The bill, introduced by Utah Republican Rob Bishop, was approved by the House Rules Committeee in a 6-3 vote along party lines, and now moves to the House floor. The bill would essentially end one of the main methods by which Presidents have historically protected significant natural areas and historical sites, and has attracted opposition from a number of groups.

"Congress has been slow to protect new national park units," wrote the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in an alert urging its supporters to oppose the bill. "This law has protected so many iconic national parks and sites celebrating national leaders -- there is no reason to change it."

Bishop is no stranger to environmental and national park activists. His proposal to gut the Antiquities Act has been floating around for a number of years, and my colleague Char Miller commented on an earlier version at KCET in 2011.

As followers of immigration politics will recall, Bishop has also sponsored bills that would exempt the U.S. Border Patrol from all environmental laws within 100 miles of the border, an exemption that would cover a startling percentage of the state of California.

As Char Miller wrote in 2011, Bishop's motivation for targeting the Antiquities Act seems to be resentment over President Bill Clinton's 1996 designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Despite that Monument's importance in keeping the southern Utah economy afloat -- personal income in the area rose by about 40 percent between 1996 and 2011, wrote Miller -- the Grand Staircase-Escalante has long been a talking point for rural ultraconservatives looking to slam protection of public lands from nearly unregulated mining, grazing, and off-road vehicle abuse.

That's despite the fact that of all the presidents who have "locked away" National Monuments using the Antiquities Act, the undisputed record-holder in terms of total acreage designated as new National Monuments is one George W. Bush. He took that title when he designated the 140,000-square mile Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in 2006. Bush then added the 95,000-square-mile Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, the 77,000-square-mile Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, and the 13,400-square-mile Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments in the waning days of his administration in 2009.

Together, those four Marine National Monuments cover more of the Earth's surface than all other National Park holdings combined; an area 100 times the size of Yellowstone National Park, and 110 times the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante. But few conservatives criticize Bush's designations as presidential overreach.

In California, designations under the Antiquities Act, some of them quite recent, protect some of the state's most important habitat for our unique wildlife. The list of Antiquities-designated National Monuments in the state includes some startlingly familiar monuments, many of which have since become treasured National Parks:

  • Lassen Peak and Cinder Cone National Monuments (folded into Lassen Volcanic National Park in 1916);
  • Muir Woods National Monument;
  • Pinnacles National Monument, a National Park since January 2013;
  • Devils Postpile National Monument
  • Lava Beds National Monument;
  • Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments, upgraded to National Parks in 1994;
  • Cabrillo National Monument;
  • Channel Islands National Monument, which gained Park status in 1980;
  • California Coastal National Monument;
  • Giant Sequoia National Monument;
  • Carrizo Plain National Monument;
  • Fort Ord National Monument;
  • César E. Chávez National Monument

The Antiquities Act was also used to expand both the Pinnacles and California Coastal national monuments, the first by Bill Clinton and the second very recently, when President Obama added the Point Arena Stornetta public lands to the California Coastal National Monument on March 11.

That's an incredible wealth of habitat for a startling range of California's iconic wildlife, from Channel Islands foxes on their eponymous islands, to Townsend's big-eared bats in the lava tubes at Lava Beds NM, to giant kangaroo rats at Carrizo Plain, to the diverse range of plants and animals in our desert National Parks.

All of them were under threat of industrial exploitation. All of them were protected with the stroke of a pen. And all of them are surpassingly popular now, to the point where we can't imagine what life would be like if they hadn't been protected.

Which is, I suspect, what Rob Bishop and people like him are really afraid of: given enough time, even the ultraconservative denizens of southern Utah start thinking that protecting the land might not have been the worst idea.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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