Two words — national monument — conjure Images of the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty, but probably not the Virgin Islands Coral Reef or the Alibates Flint Quarries near Amarillo, Texas.
Only one of those is not on the list of America’s 103 national monuments: the Lincoln Memorial, which was authorized by Congress in 1910.
Congress has rarely authorized a national monument, although it has the power to do so at any time. Overwhelmingly, a president of the United States has created our national monuments, and did it by merely writing and signing a proclamation – a form of executive order – empowered by the controversial and politicized Antiquities Act of 1906.
Originally spurred by looting of Southwest Indian ruins for artifacts - dubbed “antiquities” by anthropologists - in such places as Colorado's Mesa Verde, Congress empowered the president to protect by proclamation, "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest," on federal lands, and to “reserve” (read “take”) private property for the purpose.
At the time, nobody worried about giving the president power like a Roman emperor, to swiftly proclaim protection for government property (and coveted private property) without waiting for an unconcerned Congress to act.
Today, a lot of Americans fear and loathe that power and that law, because it has become a political weapon to devastate the fossil-fuel industry.
As an example, President Clinton unilaterally proclaimed the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, thereby depriving the energy-using public of an estimated 62 billion tons of clean-burning, low-sulfur coal, five billion barrels of oil, and four trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Clinton's decree also wiped out dozens of tax-base school land tracts of the state of Utah.
Compounding the problem, four agencies manage 101 of the monuments: the National Park Service (79), the Bureau of Land Management (19), the U.S. Forest Service (7) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (7).
Some monuments are co-managed by two agencies, so overlap complicates dealing with them. Two other agencies co-manage one monument each.
The Antiquities Act is a poster child for mission creep, that contagious federal “we-want-more” disease. We have 22 national monuments associated with Native American sites, 28 with historic sites and 57 with nature sites.
Among these sites was added with a 2009 proclamation was the 9,500 square mile, 6.8-mile deep Marianas Trench Marine National Monument, protecting the deepest place in the world’s oceans, with regional headquarters in Hawaii and no tour buses to the trench. Go figure.
National monuments have a nasty habit of developing mission creep once established, especially against public access.
The motorized recreation community is particularly burned by the hikers-only purists who relentlessly push for controls, then road and trail closures, then selective bans, and finally lockouts.
I asked Duane Taylor, director of federal affairs with the Motorcycle Industry Council, about his organization’s experience.
He told me, “Unfortunately, motorized recreation is far too often shut out of national monument areas. The blanket designation of lands as a national monument, along with the almost-certain restrictions that come along with designation, could effectively mean that much of the total economic contribution of recreation to the area will be forfeited,” he said.
That became an issue in Congress this week with a “briefing on benefits of the Antiquities Act to local economies, communities, and national treasures.”
The briefing featured panelists from the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Pew Charitable Trusts, Wilderness Society, Outdoor Industry Association and others.
Panelists cited a study showing that outdoor recreation generated $646 billion in national sales and services in 2011 and supported 6.1 million jobs. I asked Taylor for his response.
“They’re telling only part of the story,” he said. “The same study shows that approximately $257 billion or nearly 40 percent of the total $646 billion in economic contribution comes from motorized recreation.”
The power of the Antiquities Act needs to be throttled. It’s not impossible. Congress has reduced presidential powers under the act twice, first in 1950, requiring congressional consent for any future proclamation or enlargement of national monuments in Wyoming; second, requiring congressional consent in Alaska for proclamations of greater than 5,000 acres.
We may hope that the third time is the charm.
RON ARNOLD, a Washington Examiner columnist, is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.