President Obama’s recent designation of a 350,000-acre national monument in southern California has many westerners wondering, “What’s next?” Since taking office, Obama has created or expanded 13 national monuments, primarily located in the West and totaling over 3 million acres. “And I’m not finished,” Obama said at the announcement of the San Gabriel Mountains monument designation in California this month.
What is a national monument? What’s in store for the local people who live near a monument? We spoke with Dave Eliason, a Utah rancher and Public Lands Council (PLC) Vice President, who has testified before Congress on the subject.
“It’s basically another way to put public lands off-limits,” said Eliason, who testified before Congress last year on behalf of PLC. He described monuments as an effective wilderness designation—but without the deliberation of Congress. In his state’s experience, he said national monuments have detrimental effects—socially, economically, and environmentally.
Under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906, U.S. presidents may designate a monument with the stroke of a pen and without the consent of Congress, local governments or affected citizens. According to the Act, national monument designations of federal property are meant to ensure the “proper care and management” of “historic landmarks” and other “objects of historic or scientific interest.” The law also states that monuments “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects.” But in recent decades, presidents have begun designating thousands—sometimes millions—of acres at a time. At times, these designations have affected water rights, grazing rights, and access to state and private land.
Eliason cited an example from his state: the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated by President Clinton in 1996. This nearly 2 million-acre national monument took the state of Utah and local citizens by surprise. The monument still draws the ire of affected locals. Since the 1996 designation, traditional uses such as livestock grazing have sharply dropped off on the Grand Staircase. Eliason told WLJ that some schools in the surrounding area may be forced to close, and ranching families with private property within the boundaries of the monument have had to sell out. The area’s abundant oil and coal deposits are also off limits, thanks to the designation.
Despite the negative economic effects of the Grand Staircase example, a White House press release issued after this month’s monument designation stated that a recent study of over a dozen monuments found that “without exception, local economies grew following the monument’s designation.” However, Eliason said there’s plenty of research refuting that assertion. Researchers at Utah State University and Southern Utah University found in 2011 that per-capita income in counties within the Grand Staircase monument was $1,799 below that of comparable counties. The group referenced in the White House press release, Headwaters Economics, is biased against productive multiple uses such as grazing, Eliason said. The professors at Utah State University and Southern Utah University have reportedly not been able to duplicate their findings. According to the Utah professors’ research, counties in the vicinity of special land designations have overall lower per capita income, lower total payroll, and lower total tax receipts when compared to analogous counties not encumbered by special designations.
“All this doesn’t even begin to take into account the environmental damage that’s done when the federal government starts taking a ‘hands-off’ approach to land management,” Eliason said. “The ironic thing is, most of these areas are in the ‘special’ state they’re in precisely because managers, such as ranchers, have been stewarding them for decades. Monument designations, by definition, mean a change in that management.”
The debate about the economic and environmental effects of existing monuments is important. A document leaked by the administration in 2010 revealed that many more thousands of acres could be slated for designation in the remaining two years of Obama’s presidency. That’s why, Eliason said, he testified on behalf of PLC in support of legislation to reform the Antiquities Act.
“We’ve got to amend the language so that the Act is implemented the way Congress intended,” he said.
“The bill I testified in support of would do that.”
That bill, the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act, was introduced by U.S. Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT), the chairman of the public lands subcommittee. Among other safeguards, the bill would require NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis on proposed monument designations larger than 5,000 acres.
“NEPA is supposed to be required any time the federal government takes a major action that is likely to significantly impact the human environment—and a large monument designation certainly does that,” Eliason said.
Representative Bishop’s bill passed the House of Representatives this spring, but has seen no action by the Senate. PLC has supported other bills this session that would ensure state and local government approval of monuments, but so far none of them has been made law.
“We’re hopeful something moves before the end of President Obama’s term,” Eliason told WLJ. “He’s made it no secret that he intends to lock up more acres with this misapplication of the Antiquities Act.” — WLJ