When President George W. Bush protected more than 195,280 square miles of land and sea in three national monuments in the Pacific in 2009, there was no outcry from Republicans about an abuse of power.
Presidents of both parties have regularly used the law that gives them wide powers to protect historic, geological and natural resources. But Westerners often have chafed at land restrictions that came simply from a president's signature.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's efforts to identify potential national monuments had largely gone unnoticed until the Idaho Statesman report based on Interior documents it obtained. The documents showed that Interior had drafted proclamations designating the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains and the Island Park Caldera around Mesa Falls as national monuments.
Kempthorne's staff had also studied the Owyhee Canyonlands, the South Fork of the Snake River, the Bonanza-Custer area near Sunbeam, the lower Salmon River, Grandmothers Mountain in northern Idaho and the Lewis and Clark Trail area in north central Idaho. Though never made public until now, they certainly are not surprising.
The Antiquities Act of 1906, sponsored by a Republican, has long had bipartisan support and has protected areas since Teddy Roosevelt used it to protect the Devil's Tower in Wyoming. The law gives the president the power to protect areas by simply signing a proclamation.
National monuments are managed by the National Park Service, United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"There is no template for a national monument designation," said John Freemuth, Boise State University political science professor and an expert on public lands.
So if President Barack Obama designated the entire Sawtooth National Recreation Area as a national monument, he could change the name of Mt. Heyburn that towers above Redfish Lake to Mt. McClure, replacing the scoundrel senator with one of Idaho's most respected - a change Freemuth advocates.
President Calvin Coolidge signed the proclamation creating Craters of the Moon National Monument after a campaign of the then strongly Republican Idaho Statesman in 1928.
Kempthorne's study came after the Idaho Statesman asked its readers for recommendations for national monuments. The editors picked Boise retired pharmacist Kathy Steinbach's choice, Mesa Falls.
In 2010, when a similar Interior document listing several areas worthy of further protection was leaked, 15 House Republicans, including Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, urged more openness in the process. In 2011, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put out a public list of areas that deserve protection; his list included the Boulder-White Clouds, the San Juan Islands in Washington and Gold Butte in Nevada from Kempthorne's list, along with others.
Obama recently designated five areas as national monuments, including Washington state's San Juan Islands, which Kempthorne had listed.
Since 2010, a host of bills have been introduced, including one by Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, to limit the president's discretion to designate national monuments under the authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act. The House Resources Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the Antiquities Act.
"Congress gave the president the power," said Freemuth. "If they don't like it, they can take it away."
At her confirmation hearing, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she sees the Antiquities Act as a "very, very important avenue" for protecting special places.
Jewell, who lobbied Kempthorne when he was Interior secretary, showed that she shares his idea that treasured landscapes need a "treasured" process.
"Understanding how the communities feel and connecting with the communities in some way" is an important part of the process of designating national monuments, Jewell said during her confirmation hearing.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484