More than 15 years have passed since President Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by executive fiat, but if you talk to many local residents in the area, the wounds are still fresh.
The president's decision entirely ignored all input from Utah's elected representatives and bypassed Congress altogether. It also permanently blocked development of one of the world's largest deposits of clean-burning coal. These resources were part of Utah's school trust lands, which means the Clinton administration's unilateral land grab cost Utah's education system, including its students, untold billions of dollars.
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop deserves credit for introducing legislation to limit presidential power under the Antiquities Act, which provided the authority for Clinton to lock up 1.8 million acres forever. Bishop's efforts to pass the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation (EPIC) of National Monuments Act would temper any future attempts at executive branch overreach in the creation of national monuments.
The bill would designate any monument declarations under the Antiquities Act as major federal actions, which would invoke the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and thereby solicit input from Congress as well as the public in the decision. It also would limit national monument designations to one per state within any president's four-year term, unless Congress decides otherwise.
Under Bishop's legislation, private property owners would no longer be forced to involuntarily relinquish their land to the government the way they were when the Grand Staircase-Escalante designation took place. Any new monument would have to undergo a feasibility study within one year of the monument declaration that would enumerate the monument's cost to taxpayers, including the loss of federal and state revenue that would result from placing any public lands off limits.
Should an instance arise in which an American antiquity is genuinely threatened, the president still would have the authority to create a three-year "emergency" designation, but his authority to do so would be limited to 5,000 acres or less. This is consistent with both the original intent and language of the Antiquities Act, which specifies that designations must be "confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected."
The nation was a much different place in 1906 when Congress passed the Antiquities Act and granted President Theodore Roosevelt the power to create national monuments. Even then, it was questionable to allow him such power without consulting Congress. But in 1906 the National Park Service had yet to be created. Today, there is no justification for giving one person unilateral authority, or to unilaterally bypass Congress and local governments. It is a power that needs to be curtailed.
The Antiquities Act was designed to allow presidents to quickly proclaim monuments to protect them from immediate danger. Today, however, competing political philosophies regarding how best to protect the environment and local economies make the definition of danger a moving target.
Given the Antiquities Act's controversial history and its blatant misuse over the years, it's astonishing that such common sense revisions have not been implemented before. Still, we applaud Bishop's efforts, and we call on Congress to follow his lead to fix this flawed law.