Letters From the West

House passes bill to limit presidential power on monuments

The spectacular Mesa Falls are the highlight of Idaho's Yellowstone under consideration as a national monument.

The spectacular Mesa Falls are the highlight of Idaho’s Yellowstone, an area the Bush Administration studied for a national monument.

If you want to understand what House Republicans think about handing presidents the power of protecting special places with their signature alone, their vote Wednesday was a clear message.

The bill, which passed on a relatively slim 222-201 margin, would require a full environment review under the National Environmental Policy Act before a monument larger than 5,000 acres could be created under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Both of Idaho’s Republican congressmen, Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador, supported the bill written by Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah.

From timber sales to grazing permits, Republicans have been seeking to avoid full environmental reviews. But for land preservation they want more red tape.

Still the effort by preservationists to paint Republicans as anti-national park was just as ineffective. In Idaho’s congressional delegation only Labrador has not gone on record supporting more protection for the Boulder-White Clouds, currently under consideration as a national monument.

“Federal designations have too great of an impact on the individual states and should not be made without the participation of those closest to the ground,” said Todd Winer, a spokesman for Labrador. The bill “would require the President to consider the input of local communities and states before declaring new national monuments.”

The irony wasn’t lost on preservationists that many areas that have bipartisan support for a monument have been held up in the House committee Bishop will soon chair if Republicans hold on to the House this election year.

Simpson’s own Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which would protect 322,000 acres of the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in three separate wilderness areas, can’t even get a hearing in the House Resources Committee. It is Congress’ intransigence and sometimes the immediate threats that quickly pop up that have made this law so popular with both Republican and Democratic presidents.

That said, there is now an implied demand for presidents and the cabinet secretaries involved in designating monuments to hold a public process and to engage with state leaders before they sign their names. After President Clinton suddenly set aside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah on the eve of the 1996 election, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt shifted gears.

He conducted several tours of the West to meet with communities where the Clinton administration was considering monuments, including Idaho. Babbitt made two trips to Arco and Boise before Clinton expanded the Craters of the Moon National Monument in early 2001, one of six in the last week of his term.

Clinton stopped short of a monument in the Owyhee Canyonlands. But the clear national interest in the desolate desert landscape – once proposed as a national park – prompted Owyhee County to begin its own collaborative process, examining how to preserve both the wilderness and the ranching culture that is so important to its residents.

Eventually, Republican Sen. Mike Crapo led the effort to protect 512,000 acres of wilderness as a part of a comprehensive bill that has transformed the relationship between the conservation community and Owyhee County’s ranchers. Currently, an examination by former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne of the area around eastern Idaho’s Mesa Falls for monument status has prompted a study of the future of the Island Park area next to Yellowstone National Park.

Like the Owyhee Canyonlands, the national interest in that area will never recede, so Fremont County wants to have its own vision before others come in and put their own stamp on it.

The Antiquities Act is like so many institutions in the democratic republic that grew from our Constitution and have instilled creative tension. The House vote, though unlikely to go anywhere, is the latest chapter.

The vote, revealingly, did not recommend reversing Staircase-Escalante, nor any of the recent national monuments President Obama established. Just think about how mad Americans were when the government shutdown closed off these lands.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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Posted in Letters from the West