Obama Designates Three New Monuments in California

Published March 17, 2016

The Obama administration designated 1.8 million acres of California desert as three national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act on February 12.

The administration’s action now prevents various commercial activities on the lands, such mining and energy production—which had been formerly allowed—unless a party receives government approval.

The three new monuments—the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains—were designated at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). In 1994, Feinstein sponsored the California Desert Protection Act, adding significant restrictions on 7.6 million acres of federal lands through the creation of Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Mojave National Preserve. The lands within the three monuments established by President Barack Obama link or are adjacent to the parks created in 1994.

Facing the possible expansion of wind and solar farms in the area, Feinstein attempted to get Congress to pass the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act in 2015, but the bill failed, so Feinstein urged Obama to use the Antiquities Act to expand desert lands under federal protection.

The addition of the three new monuments brings the amount of federally protected acreage added through an executive action by Obama to more than 265 million acres of land and water. Obama has brought more acres of land and water under federal protection than any previous administration in U.S. history.

“The most recent designation of the three new national monuments in the Mojave Desert of California has taken place on already well-protected and regulated federal lands,” said R.J. Smith, senior fellow for environmental policy at the National Center for Public Policy Research. “It serves only to further ratchet down ever more tightly the regulation on the use of these lands.”

Antiquities Act Draws Criticism

The executive branch’s unilateral use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect large swaths of land without congressional input has drawn criticism for decades. Under the law, monument designations were intended to be limited “to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

Congress, reacting to large monuments created through executive action in 1943 and 1978, amended the Antiquities Act in 1950 and again in 1980 to limit the executive branch’s authority to declare national monuments in Alaska and Wyoming.

“The 1906 Antiquities Act was enacted to protect cultural and historical sites of particular significance to Native Americans,” said Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research. “Starting with the [Bill] Clinton administration and continuing through the [George W.] Bush and Obama administrations, the law has become a convenient vehicle for unilateral executive action [that ensures] land and water designated as national monuments are off-limits to commercial activity.

“Republicans in the House and the Senate have introduced numerous bills to attempt to weaken the unilateral power of the president to lock-up land,” said Smith. “Bills have been introduced requiring county governments, state legislatures, and governors in areas of proposed monument designation to approve any new monuments.”

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, has led recent efforts to limit the use of Obama’s unilateral ability to declare national monuments. Most recently, on February 2, the Senate narrowly rejected an amendment made by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to the Energy Policy Modernization Act, which would have overturned any monuments established by a presidential administration if those monuments had not been approved by Congress and the legislatures of the states within three years of the designation.

Costs to Economy, Liberty

Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA), whose district covers some of the area contained in the newly designated monuments, had backed different legislation to create the monuments, but his bill would have allowed limited mining and continued off-road vehicle use within the Mojave Trails monument.

“I’m not opposed to national monuments,” Cook said in a statement. “I’m opposed to the President creating national monuments through unilateral executive action, ignoring the legislative process. … special interest groups hijacked these monument designations and ignored the wishes of those who live closest and use the land most often,” Cook said.

Ryan Yonk, an assistant research professor at Utah State University, and several of his colleagues have conducted research on the impacts of the creation of a national monument on nearby local economies, and they say when public lands formerly open to multiple uses are designated national monuments, there is often a decline in commercial activity.

“These large-scale land restrictions often come with costs to local economies,” said Yonk.

“Clinton’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is one example,” Yonk said. “Despite its advocates’ assurances the designation would serve as a boon to local communities, the area’s economic fortunes since then say otherwise.

“Our analysis of census data has shown since the designation there has been no substantive increase in tax receipts or economic activity in comparison to similar counties, and some evidence [suggests] that private sector economic growth has been stunted,” said Yonk.

Smith says repealing the Antiquities Act would protect individuals’ liberty.

“If America is to remain a free and prosperous society, strong steps to protect private land ownership and multiple use of public lands must be taken,” Smith said. “A people cannot remain free if the government owns the lion’s share of the land and resources. One of the first tasks for champions of liberty in Congress would be to completely repeal the no-longer-necessary and dangerously tyrannical Antiquities Act of 1906.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.