At issue is whether a president should be allowed to protect wide swaths of land from development without public input. It's usually Congress that designates the protection of public lands by passing a law, but sixteen presidents of both parties have used authority granted to them by the 1906 Antiquities Act to set aside prized areas. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush left office touting the millions of acres they set aside from development.
More recently, Obama has made it clear he is willing to use his power under the act to set aside more land. In his State of the Union address in January, Obama pledged that he would “use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.”
But congressional Republicans oppose any presidential use of the Antiquities Act, arguing that presidents should defer to the House and Senate instead or at least allow their presidential designations to be subject to public input. Obama recently signed into law the first wilderness bill since 2009, designating a 32,500-acre area in Michigan -- but several senators remain resistant to protecting more public lands.
The Republican's bill that the House passed Wednesday, in a 222-to-201 vote, would require that any presidential national monument designation of 5,000 acres or larger undergo the same public scrutiny that happens when Congress seeks to protect land.
The proposal fits perfectly within the House GOP's 2014 playbook. Republican leaders, eager to quell dissent in their ranks, are focused on championing modest legislative proposals tied to job growth, energy and undoing Obama's regulatory policy. Since the beginning of the year Republicans have voted on a series of proposals, all of them designed to court swing voters and put moderate Democrats in difficult reelection races on the spot. Keeping focus on this type of legislation is also designed to avoid focusing on controversial matters, including unemployment insurance, the minimum wage and immigration reform.
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, admitted Tuesday that the bill fits perfectly with the current House Republican strategy.
"There’s been a lot of criticism of the president overstepping his bounds in a variety of ways," he said Tuesday. "This bill is simply another area to highlight," he said, adding that concern over misuse of the Antiquities Act "has been festering for some time."
Hastings and other Republicans believe that presidents of both parties have stretched the original intent of the law. "I think the process over the past 100 years has gotten to the point where presidents in both parties have overstepped what I think the intent of that act was," he said.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), lead sponsor of the bill, said that years after presidents decided to protect land in his state, local officials in nearby communities still grapple with a host of concerns, including grazing rights, road maintenance and issues with schools.
"All of that stuff should be sorted out before you create a national monument," Bishop said, adding later that "Every county commission in rural Utah is concerned about that potential" of new federally-protected zones.
Earlier this month the president designated a 1,665-acre nature preserve on California’s coast, Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands, as a national monument. The White House is also eyeing larger monument designations, such as the nearly 500,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region near Las Cruces, N.M. Another wilderness area that the administration is considering protecting encompasses 500,000 acres in east-central Idaho known as the Boulder-White Clouds region.
During his first term Obama came under criticism from environmentalists for not using the Antiquities Act more frequently. Former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, who served under Clinton for eight years, suggested that the president put aside one acre of federal land for every acre he leased for oil, gas, coal and mineral extraction. John D. Podesta, who played a key role in crafting a national monuments strategy under Clinton and now serves as White House counselor, said last year that conservation should be put on an equal footing with energy development on federal lands.
No monuments have ever been repealed by subsequent presidents, according to former Interior Department solicitor John Leshy. And a 1938 U.S. attorney general’s opinion stated that subsequent presidents lack such power. But in a couple of instances, presidents such as Woodrow Wilson have shrunk their boundaries, and Congress has exercised its power to rescind national monument designations.
Kristen Brengel, senior director for legislation and policy at the National Parks Conservation Association, said that if Bishop's bill passes, several sites that the Obama administration has considered for possible protection might not survive a congressional review, including Latino heritage sites in Arizona and California. And after initial public skepticism in communities near national monuments and parks, those areas have reaped incredible economic benefit. For example, an NPCA analysis found that seven national parks in Utah that were established by presidents under the Antiquities Act generated nearly $500 million in economic benefits in 2012.
"The act has brought amazing value to the state of Utah, and yet Bishop is trying to dismantle the very thing that’s brought such prosperity to Utah. It’s an unfortunate situation every time these bill gets offered," Brengel said.
Bishop dismissed such concerns.
“Whoop-dee-doo," he said. If the bill passes, Obama "can still [designate public monuments], he just has to go through a public process first. Nothing is being stopped here."
But even with this new push, it is unlikely the president is going to lose his lands authority anytime soon. Senate Democrats, who have urged Obama to pursue a more aggressive environmental agenda in his second term, will resist a vote on the House measure.