Rocky Barker: House GOP stops short of halting monuments

March 31, 2014 

In a vote last week, House Republicans expressed their opposition to a president's power of protecting special places with a signature alone.

Despite their distaste for the unilateral exercise of presidential power, the vote was relatively close, passing 222-201 Wednesday.

That's because Americans of all political persuasions love national parks and national monuments.

The bill would require a full environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act before a monument larger than 5,000 acres could be created under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Both of Idaho's Republican congressmen, Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador, supported the bill written by Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah.

From timber sales to grazing permits, Republicans have been seeking to avoid full environmental reviews. But for land preservation they want more red tape.

That doesn't translate automatically to less preservation. In Idaho's congressional delegation, only Labrador has not gone on record supporting more protection for the Boulder-White Clouds, which is under consideration by the Obama administration as a national monument.

But even Labrador isn't saying he's against protection.

"Federal designations have too great of an impact on the individual states and should not be made without the participation of those closest to the ground," said Todd Winer, a spokesman for Labrador. The bill that passed the House "would require the president to consider the input of local communities and states before declaring new national monuments."

The irony wasn't lost on preservationists that many areas that have bipartisan support for a monument have been held up in the House committee Bishop will chair if Republicans hold on to the House in this year's elections.

Simpson's own Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which would protect 322,000 acres of the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in three separate wilderness areas, can't get a hearing in the House Resources Committee. It is Congress' intransigence and the occasional immediate threats that pop up that have made the Antiquities Act so popular with Republican and Democratic presidents.

That said, there is now an implied demand for presidents and the Cabinet secretaries involved in designating monuments to hold a public process and engage with state leaders before a president signs a designation. After President Clinton suddenly set aside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah on the eve of the 1996 election, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt shifted gears.

He conducted several tours of the West to meet with communities where the Clinton administration was considering monuments, including Idaho. Babbitt made trips to Arco and Boise before Clinton expanded the Craters of the Moon National Monument in early 2001, one of six in the last week of his term.

Clinton stopped short of designating a monument in the Owyhee Canyonlands. But the clear national interest in the desolate desert landscape - once proposed as a national park - prompted Owyhee County to begin its own collaborative process, examining how to preserve both the wilderness and the ranching culture that is so important to its residents.

Eventually, Republican Sen. Mike Crapo led the effort to protect 512,000 acres of wilderness as part of a comprehensive bill that has transformed the relationship between the conservation community and Owyhee County's ranchers. An examination of possible monument status by former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne of the area around eastern Idaho's Mesa Falls has, years later, prompted a study of the future of the greater Island Park area near Yellowstone National Park.

As with the Owyhee Canyonlands, the national interest in that area will never recede. So leaders in Fremont County want to have their own vision - or at least share their information - before others come in and put their own stamp on it.

The Antiquities Act, like so many institutions in our democratic republic, grew from our Constitution's checks and balances and has instilled a creative tension. The House-passed monument bill, though unlikely to go anywhere in the Democratic Senate, is the latest chapter.

Bishop could have brought up a bill to reverse Staircase-Escalante, or any of the recent national monuments that President Obama has established. He didn't because today, even in Utah, the monument is popular.

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