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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Antiquities Act not obsolete

Antiquities Act not obsolete


There’s an interesting discussion brewing in Congress that has to do with the president’s power to, in effect, manage federal land with his pen.

Interesting, and worthwhile.

The impetus for this debate is a group of six bills that would either limit the president’s authority, or repeal it altogether.

The issue is hardly a new one.

At its center is the 1906 Antiquities Act. The law allows the president, without congressional approval, to designate national monuments. That designation greatly limits how such land can be used, including restrictions on such things as logging and mining.

Since then, most presidents have invoked the Antiquities Act to create monuments. The list of 128 monuments includes many places that Congress later converted into national parks, among them such renowned parks as Grand Canyon, Zion and Grand Teton.

The Act’s critics, including Republican representatives who recently introduced the bills to curtail the president’s authority, argue that the law is unfair.

Residents, especially those in the rural West, which encompasses most of the nation’s federal land, “must cope with the constant knowledge that, one day, we could wake up to find that with the stroke of a pen, the president declared their back yard a national monument,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.

(In most cases not literally their back yard — the Antiquities Act doesn’t apply to private property.)

That sounds pretty draconian, all right.

Presidential designations under the Antiquities Act certainly contrast with the federal government’s usual way of doing things, which is to give the public, which is to say all of us, a chance to express their opinion about how our land ought to be managed.

To cite one local example, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest will take more than four years to decide which roads to close to motorized vehicles.

Part of the reason for that sluggish progress is that forest officials, to comply with federal law, had to solicit, and then consider, hundreds of comments from the public.

Which is time-consuming, but also rather more democratic than a president unilaterally creating a national monument.

At first glance, then, it seems that the Antiquities Act’s foes make a compelling point about the need to change a law that’s been around since Teddy Roosevelt’s administration.

So we gave the matter a more thorough going over.

And we concluded that, although we encourage Congress to kick this issue around in the Capitol as well as with their constituents, we see no pressing need to tinker with the 105-year-old law.

The main reason is that this particular presidential power, unlike, say, the authority to grant pardons, is not immune from those checks and balances that the Founding Fathers so wisely added to the framework of our republic.

Congress can, and in some cases has, changed the boundaries of monuments created by the president, or abolished monuments altogether.

Lawmakers also have curbed the president’s authority in specific places. In Wyoming, for instance, the president must get Congress’ approval before creating a new monument or adding to an existing one. In Alaska, the president can’t unilaterally create a new monument larger than 5,000 acres.

The bottom line, then, is that even if, as Rep. Rehberg put it, residents awaken to find their back yard transformed into a national monument, they are not without recourse.

They can always call their representative or U.S. senator. Which is a common, and popular, way to address a grievance.

Even one that involves the president of the United States.

 
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