Legal Updates

Monument Making And The Presidency

Like presidents before him, President Obama is using the 1906 Antiquities Act, 16 U.S.C. § 431-433, as part of his presidential legacy. In September, 2014, Obama exercised this authority for the 12th time and expanded a national monument, created by his predecessor George W. Bush, from 87,000 square miles to more than 490,000 square miles to take the title as the president with the most acres preserved in the last 50 years. In July, 2015, President Obama designated three monuments, one requested by out-going Senator Harry Reid (NV-D) to protect 704,000 acres in southern Nevada, including a series of strange sculptures by artist Michael Heizer, petroglyphs and a migration corridor for deer and pronghorn – the Basin and Range National Monument. The President also designated the more controversial 330,780 acre Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in northern California on BLM and Forest Service land and a five acre monument preserving mammoth remains in Waco Texas.

House Natural Resource Chair Rob Bishop (R-UT) objected to the three monuments, scoffing that the lands were not “antiquities” and that the president’s action was a “land grab” by “the stroke of a pen.” These types of congressional complaints are as old as the Act. The 1906 Act authorizes presidents to proclaim “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments and was enacted to prevent the looting and destruction of Native American sites. President Roosevelt established the first national monument in Wyoming – Devils Tower— in 1906 and followed that action with a total of 18 monuments including the designation of the Grand Canyon in 1908 to protect 800,000 acres from mining and development. The move was controversial, but in Cameron v. United States, 252 U.S. 450 (1920) the Supreme Court upheld the use of the Antiquities Act to designate the Grand Canyon. This has been the result for other legal challenges– the statute is broadly written and courts have affirmed the president’s unilateral power to designate monuments—without public involvement or compliance with NEPA.

Preservationists see the Antiquities Act as a powerful tool to protect lands when Congress won’t act on wilderness bills and the Forest Service and BLM are hamstrung by congressional riders or litigation in the creation of quasi-wilderness lands. See for example the 11 years of litigation over the Clinton-era Roadless Rule and the 2011 congressional rider preventing the designation of “Wildlands” by then-Interior Secretary Salazar. Environmental groups their eye and the President’s ear on other monuments they would like the President to designate before he leaves office—including the 1.7 million acre Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument in Utah and Arizona, 1 million acres of desert in southern California and the 2 million acres surrounding the Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

Although the Republican House recently introduced several pieces of legislation to narrow the president’s power under the Act, (HR 1459, “Ensuring Public involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act”) to require NEPA review of monuments greater than 5000 acres and an appropriations rider to block funding for monuments in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Utah, it is unlikely that the Act will be changed. One of the last times the Act was changed, which explains the absence of Wyoming from the preceding list, was in 1950, after the creation of the monument that later became Grand Teton National Park. At that time, Wyoming’s first Senator Simpson was successful in enacting a requirement for congressional approval of all future monument designations in the state.

President Obama’s counselor, John Podesta, in 2014 remarks celebrating the Wilderness Act, indicated that President Obama’s national monument “signing pen still has some ink left in it.” If President Obama looks to the last Democratic president as an example, we can expect a lot of monument making in 2016. In his last year in office, President Clinton expanded or designated 18 monuments – the vast majority of the 22 monuments on his watch.