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In our opinion: Limit the power of the Antiquities Act

Published: Monday, June 17 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Grosvenor Arch, Escalante National Monument, Grand Staircase. Personal Photo by Ravell Call, September 14, 2003

Ravell Call Personal Photo, Ravell Call Personal Photo

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Utah's plentiful natural resources could theoretically meet the energy demands of the nation for generations to come. In practice, however, many of those resources were placed off-limits in 1996 when, during his re-election campaign, President Bill Clinton invoked the authority granted to him by the Antiquities Act to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

So far, this decision has cost Utah's education system much in lost school trust land revenue, and those unrealized revenues will continue to mount over time, burdening taxpayers, who have to make up the difference. The president's decision entirely ignored all input from Utah's elected representatives and bypassed Congress altogether, which is what the Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, allows.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is therefore appropriately concerned about the possibility of history repeating itself if Obama should use the authority under the same act.

In an open letter to the president signed by Hatch and eight of his colleagues, Utah's senior senator cited the pressure that the White House is currently receiving to create additional monuments that will produce the same results, or, in the case of energy production, non-results that were the byproduct of the Grand Staircase-Escalante designation. He also correctly notes that the Antiquities Act wasn't intended to be used as a tool to thwart domestic energy production. The clear language of the law specifies that its purpose is to preserve "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest."

Throughout the last century most designations under the act have been small and narrow in scope. Grand Staircase-Escalante was huge and included areas of dubious interest, and it was widely seen as appeasing environmental interests. The nation has changed since 1996, and the political consequences of such a move likely would be different. That was an election year in which the incumbent was overwhelmingly popular, and the electorate wasn't rattled by the kind of scandals that are currently eroding public confidence in their federal government. This president has begun to see his political capital erode in the wake of scandals involving the IRS, the Justice Department's targeting of journalists, lingering questions surrounding the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the gathering of telephone information nationwide through the NSA. Any move perceived as an appeasement of a political base at the expense of jobs or energy extraction likely would encounter more opposition than President Clinton encountered 17 years ago.

Hatch's letter to the president comes less than two months after Utah Rep. Rob Bishop introduced the Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act. 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. It would require a feasibility study to determine any new monument's cost to taxpayers, and that determination would have to include the expected loss, over time, of federal or state revenue that otherwise would be generated on that land.

We doubt Bishop's bill or the letter from the senators will carry much influence in the current political climate. However, it is good to see continued efforts to rein in a law that too easily can be used for political ends.

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