SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, says 640 acres is the magic number within the purview of a U.S. president who wants to designate a national monument without public process, as long as it is no closer than 50 miles to existing monuments' boundaries.
Bishop on Monday unveiled HR3990 and set it for a markup hearing Wednesday before the House Committee on Natural Resources, which he chairs.
"We think it is a rational approach, a common-sense approach that guarantees people have a right to be heard," he said.
The bill's delineation of 640 acres mirrors the intent of the Antiquities Act when it was debated before Congress in 1906, Bishop said. At the time, lawmakers haggled over limits of 320 acres, 640 acres or 800 acres.
"It ought not to be" controversial, he said. "This is what Congress was thinking when it was enacted."
Under the proposal, the president retains full authority under the Antiquities Act for national monument designations of 640 acres. The measure proposes additional requirements for larger designations:
• 640-10,000 acres: Must be reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act.
• 5,000-10,000 acres: Must go through an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
• 10,000-85,000 acres: Must have approval of impacted county commissioners, state legislators and governors.
Jen Ujifusa, legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the bill strips the ability to create new monuments based on geologic features.
"I don't think this is in the best interest of the country," Ujifusa said, noting that Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon or even Timpanogos Cave would not qualify for protections because geologic features aren't covered under the bill.
"It's a pretty extreme attack on Utah's public lands," she said.
The Grand Canyon Trust echoed that sentiment.
"Rep. Bishop's National Monument Creation and Protection Act neither creates nor protects national monuments. The bill would put excessive limitations on how national monuments can be created, and would unnecessarily limit the kinds of things national monuments can protect by excluding geology, oceans and other worthy objects of interest to science," said Tim Peterson, the group's Utah Wildlands Program director.
The legislation also includes a provision granting emergency authority to presidents to designate new monuments for a year to swiftly protect threatened areas and give Congress time to act.
Bishop said the measure puts limits on future presidential actions on past designations, attempting to settle the contentious issue that has bubbled in light of questions over controversial designations under review by the Trump administration.
The act would grant unilateral presidential authority to make monument reductions of less than 85,000 acres. Any reductions larger than that would require approval from leaders in the impacted county or counties, state legislature and governor.
Bishop said he arrived at the 85,000-acre threshold after reviewing the 18 monuments created by President Theodore Roosevelt. On average, those monuments matched that geographic footprint, he said.
"For the first half of the century, presidents used the Antiquities Act sparingly," Bishop said. "Most of the presidents have been very circumspect and differential to local interests. Four of the last six administrations have abused the power."
Matt Anderson, director of the Sutherland Institute's Coalition for Self Government in the West, praised the legislation.
"It is long overdue. It helps put to rest concerns on both sides when it comes to transparency and the Antiquities Act," Anderson said. "It allows both parties to engage regardless of which party controls the White House."
The call for Antiquities Act reform, while frequent in conservative politics, reached renewed urgency after former President Barack Obama designated the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah last December.
While sought by a coalition of Native American tribes and environmental organizations, Utah's elected leaders argued for years against a new monument for San Juan County.
The controversy provoked two visits to the region by the secretaries of the interior, both prior to the monument's creation and in its aftermath.
Utah's all GOP-congressional delegation brokered an effort, chiefly led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, pressing President Donald Trump to rescind the monument or reduce its boundaries. They also wanted action on Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated in 1996 chiefly over local objections.
Trump, via executive order, directed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to conduct a monument review of designations greater than 100,000 acres and accompanied by controversy.
Out of that review grew a list of recommendations Zinke forwarded to Trump's desk that call for monument boundary revisions to a handful of designations, including the two in Utah.
Zinke also said Congress should come up with legislation that makes changes to the 111-year-old law.