Congressional Committee Approves Legislation to Roll Back National Monument Designations

Sunrise in the Temblor Range of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Florence van Breugel

Washington, DC – Yesterday, the House Committee on Natural Resources advanced legislation that would severely undercut the President’s authority to establish new national monuments under the Antiquities Act – one of the country’s bedrock land conservation tools.

The bill would also allow the President to reduce existing national monuments – such as the Carrizo Plain National Monument in and near San Luis Obispo, Kern, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties – by up to 85,000 acres.

“This bill destroys the Antiquities Act and unravels more than a century of protections for some of our nation’s most iconic landscapes,” said ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper, whose organization protects public lands throughout California’s central coast region. “National monuments – like the Carrizo Plain right here in our own backyard – deserve more protection, not less.”

The Antiquities Act was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, and gives the President the authority to create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural, historic, or scientific features. Over the past 110 years, the Antiquities Act has been used by sixteen presidents – both Republican and Democrat – to protect places like the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion, and other public lands, some of which eventually became national parks.

The so-called “National Monument Creation and Protection Act” (HR 3990) was introduced on Monday by Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah). It was rushed to a vote before the House Natural Resources Committee, leaving committee members without the usual opportunity to make changes to it and without the normal opportunity for experts to provide testimony or the public to submit comments. After a short hearing late yesterday afternoon, the Committee approved it on a party-line vote, with 23 Republicans voting for the legislation to move forward, and 17 Democrats voting against it.

The bill would limit the size of new monuments to a maximum of 85,000 acres, and would require approval by local and state lawmakers and governors as well as review under the National Environmental Policy Act. It would also limit designations to man-made relics rather than iconic landscapes. Specifically, the bill:

  • Gives the President new authority to reduce the size of existing national monuments by as much as 85,000 acres;
  • Limits future national monument designations only to relics, artifacts, historic buildings, and fossils. Natural landscape features or other objects “not made by humans” would no longer be eligible for protection in any future national monuments that are created;
  • Requires new monuments of 5,000 acres or less to only be designated after review under the National Environmental Policy Act, and new monuments of 5,000 to 10,000 acres to undergo a more stringent review in an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement;
  • For new monuments between 10,000 acres and 85,000 acres, the monument would need to first be approved by the County, the state legislature, and the governor, in addition to undergoing the highest level of environmental review; and
  • Allows any existing uses (oil drilling, mining, off-road vehicles) to continue on the land after monument designation, regardless of any environmental harm they might cause.

The Carrizo Plain National Monument was created in 2001 by President William J. Clinton to include 204,000 acres of public lands in San Luis Obispo and Kern counties. It likely would not have been designated if the pending bill was in effect at the time, and is now vulnerable to reduction by as much as 85,000 acres under the new law.

Hundreds of people attend a national monument support event at Patagonia Ventura over the summer. Photo by Luke Williams

Monument Review

The Carrizo Plain and more than two dozen other national monuments were subject to a recent review ordered by President Trump. During that review, residents throughout the Central Coast expressed widespread support for the monument, including more than 160 local businesses, four chambers of commerce, thirty bipartisan local elected officials, fifty community organizations, and the Northern Chumash Tribal Council. Overall, the Department of Interior received more than 2.8 million comments, the vast majority (99%) of which supported existing national monuments and the President’s authority to protect them under the Antiquities Act. In the 58 days since completing his monuments review, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has refused to make public his final recommendations to President Trump.

The House Natural Resources Committee refused to support a second proposal at yesterday’s hearing that would have ordered Interior Secretary Zinke to release his report. That proposal was defeated on a similar party-line vote, with 23 Republicans opposed to the release and 17 Democrats in support.

Next Steps

The Antiquities Act legislation (HR 3990) now moves to the floor of the House for a vote later this year. Before becoming law, it would need to be passed by the House and Senate, and signed by the President. No companion legislation has been introduced yet in the Senate.

ForestWatch will continue to track this legislation along with our partners across the country to ensure that the Antiquities Act remains a pillar of land conservation.

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