Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush have designated public land as national monuments, using a federal law to protect from development sites judged to have natural, historical or scientific significance.
Now some House Republicans, saying the 105-year-old law has been misused, have introduced bills to limit or block the president's ability to make such designations without approval from Congress.
GOP Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana compared the 1906 Antiquities Act to the mythical sword of Damocles, calling it a weapon that can be used against rural communities at any time without warning.
Residents of Montana and other Western states "must cope with the constant knowledge that, one day, we could wake up to find that with the stroke of a pen, the president declared their back yard a national monument," Rehberg said Tuesday.
For many living in the West, "it's no myth," Rehberg said, citing a 2001 designation by then-President Bill Clinton creating the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana and Clinton's 1996 designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
Rehberg, who is running for U.S. Senate against Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sponsored one of six GOP bills to overturn or limit the Antiquities Act.
The bills respond to outrage expressed throughout the West last year after an internal Interior Department memo was made public. The memo listed 14 sites in nine states that could be designated as national monuments. The plan was never formally proposed, but opponents said its existence showed the need to reform the law.
"This isn't about preventing future monument designations. It's about making sure those designations aren't forced on people who frankly don't want or need them," Rehberg said.
Jerry Taylor, mayor of Escalante City, Utah, testified in favor of the bills. He said the 15-year-old Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has been "devastating" to his small town and cost many people their jobs.
The 1.9-million acre monument "has hurt the local economy, driven our residents to find work elsewhere and burdened local government to provide uncompensated services," Taylor told the House Natural Resources Committee Tuesday.
Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based research group, said economic data does not support Taylor's claim. Rasker's group studied the economic performance of communities adjacent to 17 national monuments in the West.
"In all cases there was growth of employment, real personal income and real per capita income. In no case did we find that the creation of a national monument studied led to an economic downturn," he said.
No one from the Obama administration appeared at the hearing, but the Interior Department submitted testimony opposing all six bills.
The Antiquities Act helped establish some of the nation's most familiar monuments, from the Grand Canyon to the Statue of Liberty and Muir Woods, the statement said.
"Without the president's authority under the Antiquities Act, it is unlikely that many of these special places would have been protected and preserved as quickly and as fully as they were," the statement said. "Who among us today would dam the Grand Canyon or turn Muir Woods over to development? These sites ... speak eloquently to the wisdom of retaining the Antiquities Act is its current form."
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, whose office first made public the internal Interior Department memo, said he has received assurances from the Obama administration that none of the sites listed will be designated as monuments in the president's current term.
But he said a law is needed just to make sure. "I take them at their word, but I don't want another Clinton to ever do it again," Bishop said.
Environmental groups blasted the GOP bills, saying monument designation has boosted tourism and preserved cultural wonders.
House Natural Resources Committee: http://naturalresources.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID259618
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