Could too many national parks be a bad thing for the United States? Some congressional Republicans think so.
The House of Representatives will meet Tuesday to discuss a Republican-sponsored bill that could drastically curtail the number of new parks created each year. The “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation (EPIC) of National Monuments Act,” which is the full name of the bill, was described by the left-leaning Center for American Progress as a “de facto ‘No More National Parks’ policy.”
At the heart of the debate is the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives the president powers to unilaterally designate a site a national monument without going through a National Environmental Policy Act process, as Congress must do.
Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, sponsor of H.R. 1459, which is the bill's official name, believes that this more than 100-year-old law creates a dangerous loophole whereby the president can bypass the deliberative (and often lengthy) process of receiving public input before establishing a national monument. “The American people deserve the opportunity to participate in land-use decisions regardless of whether they are made in Congress or by the President,” Bishop said Friday. “This bill ensures that new national monuments are created openly with consideration of public input.”
He said that decisions impacting the livelihoods of so many people “deserve to be made out in the open, not behind closed doors.”
Bishop said the Antiquities Act, part of Theodore Roosevelt’s groundbreaking conservation agenda, was created before any of today’s modern environmental and preservation laws were enacted, and it was intended to be used in emergencies to protect historic artifacts and sites of scientific value from imminent threat.
The bill is largely seen as a response to Obama’s decision last week to extend the Coastal California National Monument to reach a stretch of California’s shoreline near Point Arena. Bishop said President Obama had “punked” the House by undermining its own efforts to protect the land under the Congressional process.
The Center for American Progress argued that there are dozens of land conservation bills stalled in Congress that meet the common sense principles that have guided protections for more than a century.
“There is a widening gap between American families who want more parks and open spaces to get outdoors and a Congress that has slashed conservation budgets, shuttered parks and blocked nearly every community-led effort to protect lands for future generations,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “With Congress so broken, the president is rightly stepping up to help conserve the places that matter most to our landscape, our history and our culture.”
Lee-Ashley cited as an example the six consecutive house sessions that failed to make the Boulder White-Clouds area in Idaho a national monument, despite ample local support for the measure. The local community has spent decades working to permanently protect the beauty and abundant wildlife of the Boulder White-Clouds area, and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) introduced legislation on six occasions to protect the area as a national monument, but the bill has yet to pass.
Boulder White-Clouds is one of 10 high-profile land conservation bills examined in a report released last week by the campaign group Equal Ground, with support from the Center for American Progress. The Denver-based organization, which promotes greater balance between conservation and energy development, found that members of both political parties introduced legislation to protect these 10 “languishing lands” a combined 52 times over the past 30 years.
Congress, meanwhile, protected only one new wilderness area in the last five years, which constituted the longest drought of conservation legislation since World War II.
President Clinton used the Antiquities Act to create 19 new monuments and enlarge three others, and President George W. Bush used the Antiquities Act just five times. President Obama’s expansion of the California Coastal National Monument this month marked the tenth time he’s used executive powers to conserve land.
Advocates for creating more public lands point to statistics released earlier this year by the Department of the Interior that show that visitors to National Park Service properties generated $26.8 billion in economic activity and supported 243,000 jobs in “gateway” communities last year.
The new secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell, made it abundantly clear in her agenda-setting speech that President Obama was “ready and willing to step up where Congress falls short” in pushing through backlogged conservation bills that could bolster rural economies. President Obama himself reiterated this stance in his State of the Union speech, saying he’d use his authority “to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.”
However, his ability to do just that will be the topic of much debate this week. If House Republicans get their way (and manage to sell the idea to the Senate), each president would be allowed to designate just one new park per four-year term.