Thanks to the EPA’s announcement of the new CO2 regulations and the Bergdahl prisoner swap, excessive executive power has been in news cycle for the past week. Yet, just a couple of weeks earlier, another story of executive overreach got little coverage The affected allies stood by the President’s side as he signed an order creating what the Washington Post called: “the largest national monument of the Obama presidency so far.”
After years of heated local debate and despite polling that shows the people are not behind the President, on May 21, Obama declared the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region of New Mexico, nearly 500,000 acres, a national monument—his 11th such designation “so far.”
Ranchers and off-road vehicle users have opposed the large-scale monument. The Las Cruces Sun-News (LCSN) states: “In particular, ranchers have been concerned about impacts to their grazing allotments on public lands in the wake of the new monument.”
The LCSN reports: “Republican Rep. Steve Pearce, whose congressional district covers the region, issued a statement taking issue with Obama’s use of the 1906 U.S. Antiquities Act, saying monuments created under it are supposed to cover only the ‘smallest area compatible’ with the designation. He contended the approval ‘flies in the face of the democratic process.’” Pearce’s statement says: “This single action has erased 6 years of work undertaken by Doña Ana County ranchers, business owners, conservationists, sportsmen officials and myself to develop a collaborative plan for the Organ Mountains that would have preserved the natural resource and still provided future economic opportunities.”
The law Pearce is referencing is known as the Antiquities Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1906. The Act for the Preservation of Antiquities limited Presidential authority for National Monument designations to Federal Government-owned lands and to, as Pearce referenced, “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects protected.”
The Antiquities Act also authorized “relinquishment” of lands owned privately, authorizing the Federal Government to take land. The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment requires owners be compensated by the rest of us taxpayers. But fair market value can change dramatically when a policy change triggered by laws such as the Antiquities Act modifies the broad multiple-use category for large segments of the federal estate to limited and recreational use.
While the Federal Government owns much of National Monument land, private, tribal and state lands are often enclosed inside new designations. Essentially, an Antiquities Act presidential proclamation transfers valuable “multiple use” land into a restricted use category as management plans can disallow historical use.
History shows that in cases where the Antiquities Act has been used—whether for a National Conservation Area, a National Park, or a National Monument—mining claims were extinguished, homes have been torn down, communities have been obliterated, and working landscapes been destroyed.
Proof of my claims can be found in the sad tales of federal land grabs, including —
* what happened to the town of McCarthy, Alaska, when President Carter used the Antiquities Act to create the Wrangell-St. Elias National Monument
* Ohio’s Cuyahoga River Valley’s conversion from “a patchwork of lovely scenery and structures: row crops and orchards, pastures and woodlots, barns and farmhouses, and tractors working the fields” as Dan O’Neill called it in A Land Gone Lonesome; to the Cuyahoga River Valley National Recreation Area that razed more than 450 homes; and
* what happened in Utah when President Clinton declared 1.7 million acres to be the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that locked out a lot of ranchers and potential coal mining.
At an April 2013 Congressional hearing, Commissioner John Jones of Carbon County, Utah, told the Committee: “Please don’t insult rural communities with the notion that the mere designation of National Monuments and the restrictions on the land which follow are in any way a substitute for long-term wise use of the resources and the solid high wage jobs and economic certainty which those resources provide.”
Supporters of National Monuments often tout the economic benefits tourism will bring. Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has said: “There’s no doubt that these monuments will serve as economic engines for the local communities through tourism and outdoor recreation—supporting economic growth and creating jobs.”
Yet, Commissioner Jones, in his testimony, asked: “If recreation and tourism, which are supposed to accompany the designation of national monuments, are such an economic benefit to local communities, why is the school system in Escalante, Utah, in the heart of the Grand Staircase, about to close due to a continual decline in local population since the monument was created?”
The impact goes beyond ranching. The LCNS reporting says: “the proclamation prevents the BLM from selling or getting rid of any of the land, allowing new mining claims or permitting oil and natural gas exploration.”
At the signing of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument Declaration, Obama repeated his State of the Union Address pledge: “I’m searching for more opportunities to preserve federal lands.” It is New Mexico today, but other communities will be impacted next.
Hundreds of millions of acres have been set aside with the stroke of a pen. Each designation provides a photo op featuring a smiling President. All while somewhere someone’s access is taken, someone’s hunting and fishing grounds are gone, someone’s land has been grabbed, someone’s life’s work is wiped out, and opportunities for the American dream of a future rancher, farmer, miner are dashed.