1 of 7
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The Bears Ears of the Bears Ears National Monument are pictured from the air on Monday, May 8, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Critics say Rep. Rob Bishop's bill to reform the Antiquities Act is the most aggressive legislative attack they've seen on the 111-year-old law that gives presidents the authority to create national monuments.

Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said all HR3990 does is set the process for new monument designations.

"We are not taking away the ability of the president to use the Antiquities Act in the future," he said during a Wednesday teleconference. "We are establishing how it should be used."

Bishop's bill, which passed the committee late Wednesday with a 27-13 vote, comes in the midst of a partisan donnybrook over national monument designations, calls for transparency and accountability, and pushes for reform of the 1906 law.

"Let's recognize what every member of this committee knows (and) some refuse to admit," Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said during a Wednesday committee hearing on the bill.

"Monument designations are intentionally used to curtail legitimate recreational, sporting and economic activities without the input of residents. We hear the scare stories about drilling and development, but what really is the fact here is those all require permits. We don't need a monument to stop this type of development," LaMalfa said.

Ranking member Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., blasted the measure, saying it's "designed to destroy the Antiquities Act."

"National monuments are not a problem we need to solve," Grijalva said.

"Arbitrary acreage limits that have nothing to do with science or ecology or history or culture would destroy the act. Limiting the act to man-made objects would destroy the act," he said.

Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, said the Montana-based nonprofit sportsmen's organization objects to the legislation because of its narrow prohibitions on what can be protected.

"Some of these areas were set aside not just for artifacts but for scientific reasons," Tawney said. "That is the most egregious part of the bill."

The bill was released on the heels of a group of House Democrats calling for the release of the final monument review report submitted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to the president.

“Our requests for information on Secretary Zinke’s ‘review process’ of our national monuments have been dismissed, so now we’re demanding answers,” Grijalva said in a statement.

Bishop said the bill gives Grijalva and other Democrats the solution to their complaints about lack of transparency in the monument designation process.

"This bill does everything they want," he said. "And not just for this president, but in the future."

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:

• For 640-10,000 acres: Must be reviewed under the National Environmental Policy Act.

• For 5,000-10,000 acres: Must go through an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.

• For 10,000-85,000 acres: Must have approval of impacted county commissioners, state legislators and governors.

Supporters say the measure reins in the potential for more "abuses" of the Antiquities Act in the future.

At the committee hearing, LaMalfa pointed to the expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in 2017 by former President Barack Obama over the objection of residents in his home state of California and neighboring Oregon.

"(Bishop's bill) gives a voice to those who live and work around these public lands," LaMalfa said. "The previous administration abused the act by designating more than a half-billion acres' worth of monuments, in many cases over the direct opposition of those who actually live within the designations."

Bishop, who has made it clear "it wouldn't hurt my feelings" if Congress abolished the Antiquities Act, said his bill provides a reasonable compromise.

"Instead of doing away with the act, let's fix it," he said. "What we're doing here is a more moderate, middle-of-the-road approach."

Critics slammed the measure, stressing that iconic places across the country would be ineligible for protection as a monument, including the geologic arch formations at Arches National Park or towering cliffs at Zion National Park.

"For 110 years, presidents have used the Antiquities Act to protect some of our most treasured historic, cultural and natural wonders," Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, wrote in a letter to the committee. "This privilege should continue."

Bishop said his bill would only apply to the process to create future monuments.

8 comments on this story

Use of the Antiquities Act is under scrutiny in the wake of several controversial monument designations across the country, including two in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

In April, Trump ordered Zinke to conduct a review of some of those designations and deliver a set a recommendations.

While an executive summary was released by Zinke's office, the full report has not been officially disclosed. A leaked document includes boundary revisions to a handful of national monuments, including the two in Utah.