Late last month, two mining groups appealed a federal judge’s decision to uphold a mining ban on over a million acres of land near the Grand Canyon. The area is home to vast amounts of high-grade uranium reserves, which are now largely off-limits due to the Obama administration’s decision to deny any new mining claims.
This ban was made years ago with little fanfare, but these appeals come in the wake of several instances of significant executive overreach on the part of the Obama administration. The president’s executive order granting legal status to 5 million undocumented immigrants has gained a great deal of attention, and the public might be forgiven for thinking that the immigration action is a unique departure from how this president has used his power. But the truth is that this is only the latest in a series of unilateral actions from the White House, and it’s something that demands a reassertion of the kind congressional oversight that the Constitution expressly requires.
To be fair, President Obama is not the first to act without consulting Congress on public lands issues. Indeed, President Bill Clinton’s 1996 designation of 1.6 million acres as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was a far more egregious misuse of presidential authority, and it did far more damage to Utah’s energy interests. Billions of dollars of clean-burning coal were placed forever out of reach. To make matters worse, these deposits were on School Trust Lands that would have generated massive amounts of revenues for Utah’s public education system. It’s been almost two decades since all this happened, but if you speak to many locals in the Escalante area, you’ll discover that the wounds from this terrible decision are still fresh.
President Clinton’s decision had its legal basis in the Antiquities Act, which gave the chief executive a great deal of latitude in establishing national monuments without consulting Congress. And unlike his recent executive actions that go beyond the bounds of precedent, the Obama administration’s management of this mining ban is grounded in clearly defined legal authority. But that authority was granted to him by legislation, and Congress has the ability to rewrite or repeal that legislation in order to restore a more appropriate balance of power between two co-equal branches of government. Some efforts have been made in that direction with regard to the Antiquities Act, but there is still far more work to do.
Regardless of who the president is, Congress should take a more active role in the management of public lands. But given how comfortable this president is in bypassing Congress, lawmakers should now be reviewing this issue with a greater sense of urgency.