Giving Americans a Voice in Land Management Decisions

February 2, 2016

Mr. President, if there’s one thing we know about American politics today – if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the 2016 presidential race thus far – it’s that there is a deep and growing distrust between the American people and the federal government.

This institution – Congress – is held in shamefully low regard by the people we were elected to represent. But so too are the scores of bureaucratic agencies that are based in Washington, D.C., but extend their reach into the most remote corners of American life.

In my home state of Utah, the public’s distrust of Washington is rooted not in ideology, but experience... in particular the experience of living in a state where a whopping two-thirds of the land is owned by the federal government and managed by unaccountable agencies that are either indifferent, or downright hostile, to the interests of the local communities they are supposed to serve.

I’ve lost track of the number of stories I’ve heard from the people of Utah about their run-ins with federal land-management agencies.

But there’s one story that nearly every Utahn knows: President Bill Clinton’s infamous use of the Antiquities Act in 1996 to designate as a national monument more than 1.5 million acres of land in southern Utah – what would become known as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

What Utahns remember about this episode is not just what President Clinton did, but how he did it.

Signed into law in 1906, the Antiquities Act gives the president the power to unilaterally designate tracts of federal land as “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

The purpose of the law is to enable the Executive to act quickly to protect archeological sites on federal lands from looting, destruction, or vandalism.

But the Antiquities Act is not a carte blanche for the president. Quite the opposite, in fact. The language of the law is clear: it instructs the president to restrict the designation of national monuments to the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

So you can imagine the surprise – and the indignation – across the state of Utah following President Clinton’s decision to annex a stretch of land roughly one-and-a-half times the size of Delaware... and then to give control over that land to a federal bureaucracy that routinely maintains a maintenance backlog that is several billion dollars higher than its multi-billion annual budget.

Even worse than the enormous size of the designation was the Clinton administration’s hostility toward the people of Utah and the communities that would be most directly affected by his decision.

Not only did President Clinton announce the monument designation in Arizona – over one hundred miles from the Utah state border – but he refused to consult, or even notify, Utah’s congressional delegation until the day before his announcement. 

Consulting with the people who live and work in the communities around a potential national monument area isn’t just a matter of following political etiquette – it’s a matter of ensuring that federal land policy does not rob citizens of their livelihood.

Which is exactly what happened as a result of the Grand Staircase designation.

Utah’s economy is built on the farm and agriculture industry. And livestock is the state’s single largest sector of farm income. But of the 45 million acres of rangeland in Utah, nearly three-quarters is owned and managed by the federal government.

Since the 1940s federal agencies have slashed livestock grazing across the Utah landscape by more than 50 percent – a policy of economic deprivation that accelerated after 1996 on rangeland within the Grand Staircase monument. And even today the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) shows no sign of relenting.

Now for most people, the Grand Staircase episode is a case study in government-sponsored injustice and bureaucratic tyranny.

For me, it brings to mind the line from America’s Declaration of Independence, in which the colonists charge that the King of Great Britain “has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”

But for President Obama – and for the radical environmental groups that have co-opted federal land-management agencies – it is the textbook model for the application of the Antiquities Act.

In fact, it appears that President Obama is considering using his final year in the White House to target another vast tract of land in southern Utah for designation as a national monument.

Covering 1.9 million acres of federal land in San Juan County, this area – known as Bears Ears – is roughly the same size as the Grand Staircase; both are situated near the southern edge of the state; and both possess an abundance of natural beauty unrivaled by any other place in the world.

But the similarities don’t end there.

Each area is also home to a group of Utahns deeply connected to the federal land targeted by environmental activists for national-monument designation. In the case of the Grand Staircase, it’s the ranchers. And in Bears Ears, it’s the Kaayelii band of the Navajo tribe.

The Kaayelii believe that a national monument designation in Bears Ears, their ancestral home, would threaten their livelihood and destroy their way of life.

Their concerns are well founded. In the 1920s and 30s hundreds of Navajo families settled on homesteads located in national monuments, only to find themselves steadily pushed out by imperious federal agencies all too eager to eradicate private use of public lands.

So it should come as no surprise today that the Kaayelii are protesting the unilateral federal takeover of Bears Ears and calling on the Obama administration to forgo the highhanded approach to land conservation employed by President Clinton in 1996.

The Kaayelii are not opposed to the protection and conservation of public lands. They care about the preservation of Bears Ears just as much as anyone. To them, the land is not just beautiful – it’s sacred. They depend on it for their economic and their spiritual survival.

Which is why all they’re asking for is a seat at the table, so that their ancestral land isn’t given over – sight unseen – to the arbitrary and arrogant control of federal land-management agencies.

I agree with the Kaayelii: the president of the United States has no business seizing vast stretches of public land to be micromanaged – and mismanaged – by federal agencies, especially if the people who live, work, and depend on the land stand in opposition to such a takeover.

And there’s no denying that the people of San Juan County reject the presumption that they have no say in the management of the land in their community.

The truth is, most of those who have mobilized to support a monument designation at Bears Ears – including several Native American groups – live outside of Utah, in states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. 

By contrast, the people of San Juan County – the people whose lives and livelihoods are intricately tied to Bears Ears – stand united in their opposition to a monument designation.

That’s why I have introduced this amendment – number 3026 – which would update the Antiquities Act in order to protect the right of the Kaayelii and their fellow citizens of San Juan County to participate in the government’s efforts to protect and conserve public land.

Here’s how my amendment works: it preserves the president’s authority to designate tracts of federal land as national monuments.

But it also reserves a seat at the table for the people who would be directly affected by such an executive action. It does so by opening the policymaking process to the people’s elected representatives, at the state and federal level, so they can weigh in on monument designations.  

Under my amendment, Congress and the legislature of the state in which a monument has been designated have three years to pass resolutions ratifying the designation.

If they fail to do so, the national monument designation will expire.

Some critics claim that this amendment takes unprecedented steps to curtail the president’s monument-designation authority under the Antiquities Act.

This is nonsense.

The truth is that Congress has twice passed legislation amending the Antiquities Act.

In 1950, Congress wholly prohibited presidential designation of national monuments under the Antiquities Act in the state of Wyoming. Some thirty years later, Congress passed another law requiring congressional approval of national monuments in Alaska larger than 5,000 acres.

If you’ve ever visited Wyoming or Alaska, you know that these provisions have not led to the parade of horribles conjured up by radical environmental activists who seem intent on achieving nothing short of iron-fisted federal control over all public lands. 

In reality, the states of Wyoming and Alaska have proven that national-monument designations are not necessary to protect and conserve America’s most beautiful, treasured public lands.

So why should the people of Wyoming and the people of Alaska enjoy these reasonable, commonsense protections under the law, while the people of Utah – and, indeed, of every other state in the Union – do not?

There’s no good answer to this question… except the passage of my amendment.

And to anyone who might suggest that the people of these communities in and around national monuments are not prepared to participate in the policy process, I invite you to visit San Juan County in southeastern Utah.

You’ll see a community that is not only well informed about the issues and actively engaged in the political process, but genuinely dedicated to finding a solution that works for everyone.

The people of San Juan County – from the Kaayellii to the County Commissioners – have the determination that’s necessary to forge a legislative solution to the challenges facing public lands in their community.

And that’s exactly what you’d expect.

San Juan is a hardscrabble community – one of the most disadvantaged in the entire state. But you wouldn’t know it from the people there. The citizens of San Juan County are hardworking, honest, decent people.

Yet for far too long federal land-management agencies have given the people of San Juan County – and the people all across America – little reason to trust in the federal government.

My amendment gives us an opportunity to change that.

If Congress wants to regain the trust of the American people, we’re going to have to earn it.

Passing this amendment, and giving all Americans a voice in the land-management decisions of their community, would be a meaningful and important step toward earning back that trust.

I urge my colleagues to lend their support to this amendment and the vital public trust that it will help us rebuild.

I yield the floor.