WASHINGTON — Upset Utahns in Congress are attempting something that hasn't been done in 60 years: Exempt a state — this time Utah — from a president's power to create or expand national monuments there.
Wyoming members pulled that off for their state in 1950. They were upset when Franklin D. Roosevelt created the old Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943. A bill in 1950 to turn it into Grand Teton National Park included language exempting Wyoming from the law that gives presidents power to create national monuments without congressional approval.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, introduced a bill Monday to do the same for Utah. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Also, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he will introduce identical legislation in the House.
That comes after Interior Department documents leaked last week showed that the Obama administration quietly has been considering forming 14 new national monuments, including two in Utah — in the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa.
It brought back bad memories of Bill Clinton's surprise 1996 creation of the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, even though Clinton's administration insisted until the day before it was formed that no action was imminent.
"The Obama administration continues to put the needs of environmentalists, who want to keep the public away from public lands, above the needs and desires of Utahns," Bennett said.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Utah Gov. Gary Herbert over the weekend that the administration would not move forward on the monuments without local input, and had merely been brainstorming on how to protect pristine areas.
Still, Bennett said, "It is essential, given past history, to introduce this legislation and ensure Utahns will have a role in determining how federal lands are managed in our state."
Hatch added, "Regardless of how you feel about Clinton's Grand Staircase-Escalante monument, most Utahns take issue with the colossal abuse of government power in its designation."
He added, "To hear that this administration may follow in President Clinton's footsteps is one more major disappointment from a president who was supposed to bring about change, but instead seems intent on going down that same old path."
Bishop said, "Utah's lands have been among those most heavily targeted by this administration's efforts to impose increased restrictions and limited access."
He added that if Salazar holds true to commitments he gave to Herbert to have local input on monument designations, "I believe he can show the extent of his commitment by supporting the legislation."
The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives presidents power to create monuments without approval by Congress. But that power has been reduced twice.
Once was for Wyoming in 1950. The second came after Jimmy Carter created 56 million acres of national monuments in Alaska. Congress then required future congressional approval of any more monuments in Alaska that are larger than 5,000 acres.
Bennett said secretive moves now by the Interior Department toward more national monuments could undermine years of work and progress in Utah toward resolving public lands issues.
A bill that he and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, passed last year, for example, achieved consensus among local politicians, land owners and environmental groups on which areas in Washington County should be protected — and how to do it — and where development should be allowed.
He said that bill showed "Utahns are fully capable of coming together to craft solutions to challenging public land issues without heavy-handed outside intervention." He said other counties have been working on similar efforts, and he hopes that talk of new monuments will not scuttle such work.
Besides pushing the bill, Bennett said he plans to question Salazar about potential plans for national monuments during upcoming hearings about Interior's proposed 2011 budget. Bennett is a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
This story was reported from Salt Lake City.