Policy: Environment & Energy

House GOP to take aim at Obama's monument declarations

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House Republicans will attempt to handcuff President Obama's ability to declare national monuments in a move that would blunt a White House pledge to protect more wilderness.

A bill from Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, on the issue could come as early as next week, Doug Heye, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told the Examiner.

"The next time he uses his pen to create a monument, it's not going to be something to which we have agreed and we're not going to like it. And it presents real procedural problems," Bishop told the Examiner.

The push comes shortly after Obama expanded the Coastal California National Monument to include 1,600 acres of the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands. In doing so, Obama reiterated a pledge to unilaterally protect lands through the 108-year-old Antiquities Act — used by administrations of both parties — if Congress didn't.

While Bishop's bill could clear the House by capitalizing on GOP criticism of Obama's use of executive authority to declare monuments, it faces long odds in the Senate.

The bill would require the administration to submit to a National Environmental Policy Act review, which is used to develop land-management plans, before designating a monument of at least 5,000 acres rather than after. Designations of less than 5,000 acres would be excluded, but protection would apply for only three years.

It also would require the president to receive congressional approval to declare more than one monument in the same state during a four-year term.

House Republicans have grown increasingly incensed by Obama's use of the Antiquities Act. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., a frequent critic of the practice, slammed Obama's use of "imperial powers" to designate Point Arena-Stornetta.

But environmental groups say Bishop's bill would be "redundant" and that its main aim is to weaken the Antiquities Act.

The groups said the administration already accomplishes Bishop's purported goal — inviting public comment ahead of a designation — through local meetings and hearings, at which the intended monument's area is agreed to. The review process is used afterward to develop land-management plans, which are designed to be "flexible," said Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club's lands protection program.

"He thinks he's found a very clever way to try to slow down the president from declaring new monuments," Manuel told the Examiner.

Environmental groups have pressed the Obama administration to use the Antiquities Act to get around House Republicans who environmentalists say have blocked new protection bills, owing to a Tea Party surge that has sought to limit federal land acquisitions.

But a week before Obama designated Point Arena-Stornetta, the House sent the White House a Senate-passed measure expanding the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Glen Arbor, Mich., by 32,500 acres. That was the first congressionally passed lands bill since 2010 — Obama signed it after he designated Point Arena-Stornetta.

House Republicans also point out that they had passed legislation to protect Point Arena-Stornetta. It was the Senate that hadn't acted, they said.

"I was not surprised to actually see him use this because it's another way of saving, politically, two Democrat senators [California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer] who aren't getting anything done in the Senate in a body that they control," Bishop said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., did not respond to requests for comment on why the bill didn't make it to the Senate floor.

Environmental groups say the Point Arena-Stornetta legislative history is a bit more complicated than Bishop's characterization.

The House-passed version rejected local proposals by adding grazing as a purpose for the monument and forbidding additional land acquisitions, said Bentley Johnson, legislative representative for the National Wildlife Federation's public lands campaign.

"I do not believe this was a move to intentionally 'punk' the House and pin the 'inaction' label on them," Johnson said of Obama's move to use the Antiquities Act.

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