This bill will protect rural Utahns from abuses of the Antiquities Act

July 11, 2018

Twice in the past 20 years, Washington politicians serving wealthy out-of-state special interests attacked Utah’s rural communities. President Donald Trump provided these communities some temporary relief in October, but if we want to permanently protect Utah’s rural economy from outside intervention, we need to act now.

The looming danger for Utah’s rural communities comes from the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was originally intended to protect objects of historic and cultural interest, such as artifacts and religious sites.

Unfortunately, what was once a narrowly targeted tool for preventing looting on federal lands has become a weapon of faraway elites to use against hardworking rural Americans.

First, in 1996, at the height of his re-election campaign, President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act to create a 1.5 million-acre monument in southern Utah. Environmental activists were on hand for Clinton’s announcement in Arizona, but no one from Utah’s state government or federal delegation was notified beforehand. It was a complete surprise.

Then, in 2016, after an extensive campaign by well-funded out-of-state environmental activists, President Barack Obama created the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.

For outsiders, it’s hard to see any downside from designating millions of acres of federal land as a national monument. Who could be against protecting public lands?

But for locals, that “protection” comes at a high cost, in the form of restrictions on travel, recreation and economic opportunities. Reduced grazing access is particularly harmful to Utah’s communities. Utah’s rural economy is built on the agriculture industry, and livestock is the state’s single largest source of farm income.

Since the 1940s, federal agencies have cut livestock grazing on Utah rangelands by more than 50 percent — a trend only accelerated by monument designations.

Well-meaning environmental activists have suggested that Utah’s rural communities embrace the tourist economy that comes with monument designations. But while tourism has contributed much to rural Western economies, communities can’t survive on tourism alone.

Tourism is at best a complement to — not a substitute for — broader economic development. We ought not limit the job opportunities in our rural regions to just one industry.

We as Utahns are not powerless to stop these attacks on our rural communities. Nor are we opposed to protecting public lands. Utahns love public lands. And there is no one better suited to protect these lands than the very people who live closest to them and rely on them for their livelihoods. We can empower local communities to give them a voice in public land management while also maintaining the president’s power to protect these lands. In fact, Congress has twice granted similar protections to other states.

First, in 1950, Congress prohibited future monument designations in the state of Wyoming. Then, more than 30 years later, Congress passed another law requiring congressional approval for any monument designation in Alaska larger than 5,000 acres.

At a bare minimum, Utahns deserve the same protections from the Antiquities Act that the people of Alaska and Wyoming enjoy.

That is why I am introducing the Protect Utah’s Rural Economy, or PURE, Act. This bill would protect Utah from future abuses under the Antiquities Act by prohibiting the president from establishing or expanding a national monument in Utah unless the proposed monument has been authorized by an act of Congress and the state Legislature.

Rural Americans want what all Americans want: a dignified, decent-paying job, a family to love and support and a healthy community whose future is determined by local residents — not their self-styled betters thousands of miles away.

We have a limited window to protect our rural communities by passing the PURE Act. Let’s pass this bill now.

Op-ed was originially published in the Deseret News