WASHINGTON — Congressional backlash over a leaked Department of Interior memo that detailed plans for the possible creation of 14 new national monuments — including two in Utah — continues to fester and was the focal point of a Tuesday congressional hearing.
Six bills that propose to exempt specific states from such presidential declarations — or severely curtail that power by the executive branch — were aired in the meeting chaired by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
His proposal, the Utah Land Sovereignty Act, seeks to exempt Utah from the 1906 Antiquities Act that gives U.S. presidents the ability to create new monuments through public proclamation.
Bishop says such power rightfully rests with U.S. Congress and was never envisioned to extend such broad and sweeping discretion to presidents, such as the 1996 designation by President Bill Clinton that created the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Other measures such as one proposed by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, would exempt that state.
Bishop said since its inception, the Antiquities Act has been used to create 128 monuments.
"The Antiquities Act has been abused by presidents of both parties, but it is in the West where the timing and large scope of many designations have resulted in unnecessary hardship to local communities dependent upon access and use of the land and resources," Bishop said.
At the very least, Bishop said Utah deserves the same consideration that Wyoming has when it was specifically exempted by the Antiquities Act in a compromise that grew out of the creation of the Jackson Hole National Monument and subsequent designation of the Grand Teton National Park.
The compromise includes the requirement that congressional consent be obtained for any future national monument creation or expansion. Alaska, too, has such consideration if the designation involves more than 5,000 acres.
The half dozen pieces of legislation heard in the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands are in response the continuing controversy over an Interior memo publicly leaked in February 2010 that showed the Obama administration had identified 14 possible places for new monument designations.
Two of them — the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa — are in Utah.
Bishop said designations made by the executive branch fly in the face of the democratic process and said such considerations should be weighed in the open with congressional debate, not behind closed doors.
"There should be local approval, with local understanding and local commitment," he said. "Land use designations such as national monuments and wilderness should be initiated at the local level, not out of pressure from Washington and definitely not unilaterally."
Bishop concedes that it will take time build momentum and public awareness over the importance of the legislation, and any congressional passage of such a bill risks a presidential veto.
Asked if a U.S. president would refrain from vetoing a public lands bill that severely curtails or eliminates that much executive branch discretion, Bishop was blunt.
"If he or she believes in the U.S. constitution, he or she would."