Opinion: Columnists

Ron Arnold: Congress working to strip presidential land grab power

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If you think national monuments are statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, welcome to the crazy catalog of federal land grabbing tools.

These "monuments" are actually large areas that are supposed to be small, and can be created out of thin air by the president with the stroke of a pen.

This extraordinary power has been abused by presidents of both political parties time and again to bypass Congress in creating national park-size units -- a congressional power -- at his own whim to satisfy his Big Green constituents.

But parks are expensive to operate and monuments are budgeted like second-class citizens -- and they block resource use.

Members of Congress last week held a hearing on nine separate bills to rein in the president's national monument proclamations by requiring congressional approval or requiring a public National Environmental Policy Act comment process before taking effect.

National monuments are the brainchild of Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Rider, who, as president, peddled his idea to Congress by pleading with members to stop the looting, desecration and destruction of Native American sites in the Southwest such as Chaco Canyon and Cliff Palace.

Congress fell for it and gave the president proclamation power in the Antiquities Act of 1906, an intentionally broad piece of legislation to set aside "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest."

So TR rode roughshod over Westerners far and wide by designating 18 national monuments that should have gone through Congress as national parks, such as the Grand Canyon and Washington State's Mount Olympus (which Congress later designated parks), and only six of the 18 were major Native American sites.

Let's not forget TR's very first proclamation: Devil's Tower, Wyo., alien spaceships' favorite landing pad, as in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Private property captured in national monument boundaries was not seized, but owners could sell to the feds if they wanted to -- and the caretaker National Park Service had ways to make them want to do so.

However, the private property rights to grazing, logging and mining within federal lands were seized. This enraged the locals, who were not consulted.

President Obama recently proclaimed five new national monuments without much local objection. Congress seems OK with that, but fears waiting for his other shoe to drop, largely because of a very bad experience with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Clinton established 19 national monuments covering more than five million acres and expanded three others, all except one designated in Clinton's last year as president.

He made last-minute designations of more than a million acres as national monuments, but had created the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in 1996 during his re-election campaign against Republican Bob Dole.

Clinton didn't know about the Utah area before he was scheduled to make the proclamation -- in Arizona, at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, to keep Utah's Republican members of Congress in the dark until it was too late.

The president was blindsided by White House official Kathleen McGinty, who colluded with Big Green advocates to pass off a fake letter making it look like the president wanted Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to help prepare the designation -- isolating its enormous deposit of privately owned low-sulfur coal.

The fraud was not discovered until after Clinton made the proclamation, when House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, obtained a subpoena and federal marshals seized Katie McGinty's documents and email records. I covered the story at the time in a report available here.

Is there some similar Machiavellian plot afoot in the bowels of the White House today? Better to strip the power before Big Green pulls some strings and makes us sorry we didn't.

Washington Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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