Protecting Our Rural Communities

January 11, 2019

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,

Unfortunately, a relic of presidential power from the Progressive Era has been weaponized in recent years to threaten rural Utahns way of life.

Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act authorizes the president to unilaterally designate national monuments on federal lands with the intent of protecting historic landmarks and archeological sites.

But what was once a narrowly targeted tool for preventing looting on federal lands now poses a looming danger to our rural communities in Utah. It has instead become a tool for Washington politicians to serve wealthy out-of-state special interests at the expense of these communities, as we have seen in recent decades.

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.

And for locals, this “protection” of these lands has come 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. And 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 and lands. And there is no one better suited to protect them than the very people who live closest to them and rely on them for their livelihoods. If we want to permanently protect Utah’s rural economy from outside intervention, we need to act now.

That is why I introduced the Protect Utah’s Rural Economy, or PURE, Act this week. 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.

In other words, it would empower our local communities to give them a voice in public land management while also maintaining the president’s power to protect these lands. And in fact, Congress has twice granted similar protections to other states.

Congress first prohibited future monument designations in the state of Wyoming in 1950. 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. The PURE Act would give them that protection.