New national monuments proclaimed

By Ralph Maughan

This month President Barack Obama established three new national monuments on 2,800 square miles of public land in the Mojave Desert of southern California. They will be administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and are adjacent to popular Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks or the Mojave National Preserve. The names given these new monuments are Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow, and Castle Mountains.

Authority for the President’s proclamation comes from the Antiquities Act of 1906. It’s astonishing to me that this way of protecting land saved both the Grand Canyon and Grand Teton National Park back in the day.

As usual there has been both praise and objection to the declaration of new monuments. With new national monuments there are certain groups ready to make judgments, but over the years their arguments have grown stereotyped. In fact reading about them, I found it hard to distinguish their comments about Obama’s presidential proclamation of this February from his similar orders in June 2015 when he established other new national monuments.

Here is how they line up. Conservation groups almost always approve the creation of national monuments. So do most tourist related businesses in the areas. Local residents are often split. Republican officials usually complain about “presidential overreach” and lost possibilities for land development. Local Democratic politicians smile. For example, the President’s Mojave decision was in response to California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein. For some time she has sponsored her “California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act” without it passing Congress. Her bill would do much the same as what Obama has just now done with his executive order.

Groups representing off-road vehicle (ORV) riders and the cattle, sheep and mining lobbies usually snarl. ORV groups always say the monument will “lock up the land” for exclusive use by “the fit” (who are usually characterized as living ‘back east’). Fit folks seem to be people who can walk. Cattle and sheep interests say the folks “back east” or in cities don’t understand where their meat comes from. They’ll be sorry when their steaks and lamb chops disappear. Mining interests declare that world class mineral deposits are now barred from development.

When it comes to national monuments there are some specific facts that everyone ought to understand. One is the allegation of presidential overreach.

The assertion that a president overreaches when he declares a national monument goes all the way back to 1908.

A few weeks ago I wrote about President Theodore Roosevelt (TR) who began reserving lands from the public domain. TR created the first national monument using the authority of the Antiquities Act to protect Devil’s Tower in Wyoming in 1906. This law gives the President power to create national monuments on public lands in order to protect significant “natural, cultural or scientific features.”

After Devil’s Tower, TR next, one-by-one, set aside nine more national monuments. All seemed well, until he created the Grand Canyon National Monument. This was big — 800,000 acres. So, a hundred years ago we heard the first cry of “presidential overreach.” Critics said the act just wasn’t meant for protection of something so large. It went to court. In 1920 the Supreme Court sided with the president. It ruled that the amount of land reserved could be that large. The case was Cameron v. United States. Cameron, the plaintiff, lost the case and also what turned out to be his fraudulent mining claim.

Since the reservation of the Grand Canyon, every president except Ronald Reagan has proclaimed national monuments. Some of the monuments have been much larger than Grand Canyon National Monument (since renamed and made even larger as Grand Canyon National Park). In a hundred years, none of these actions have been reversed by Congress against the wishes of a president. Currently some Republicans are trying again. This time they are led mostly by Utah anti-conservation politicians. I think the claim of overreach is hollow after so many monuments and a century of time. Isn’t it really that those objecting don’t want protection of a particular area, not that their refined taste in constitutional balance has been upset?

Over time many of the national monuments have been later reconsidered by Congress, enlarged, and turned into national parks. National parks do require an act of Congress as well as a presidential signature. The motivation for doing this is usually to give the area even better protection and name more likely to attract tourists.

A current example in Idaho is Craters of the Moon (Craters).

Protecting Craters has been quite popular in Idaho. It became a national monument in 1924 by executive order of Republican President Calvin Coolidge. The drive to convince him came from the town of Arco, and he proclaimed a modest 25,000 acres to create the monument. Later proclamations by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy doubled its size.

The last days of the Bill Clinton presidency brought the biggest change. In 2000 President Clinton enlarged the monument to 661,287 acres— an increase of over 1,000 per cent!

This new and huge monument was large enough to attract some opposition. Some hunters were upset. In 2002, Rep. Mike Simpson crafted a law that renamed the monument by adding “preserve” to the name— “Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.” More significant was his take on hunting. National parks and frequently monuments too are closed to hunting. Under the Simpson compromise hunting continued in the new Craters additions— in the Preserve portion— and remained closed in the much more traveled original portion (the core monument).

Despite this, today there’s still no “national park” in its name, and so there is continuing interest from Arco to see Congress establish the Craters of the Moon National Park.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie Johnson Maughan. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.