U.S. presidents, Barack Obama in particular, have abused a 111-year-old law to grab millions of acres of private land for the government, and that has to change, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Wednesday.
Presidents have made such land grabs without regard for who lived on the acres they designated as protected, Lee said during an event at The Heritage Foundation.
President Donald Trump now can be part of the solution, he said, because the 2016 election put Republicans in control of the White House, Senate, and House.
“Last December, in the 11th hour of his presidency, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to rope off millions of acres of federal land as new national monuments,” Lee said. “As part of this midnight monument designation spree, President Obama designated 1.3 million acres in southern Utah as the Bears Ears National Monument.”
The original intent of the Antiquities Act of 1906 was to allow presidents to protect land threatened by treasure hunters and other exploiters as national monuments.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who appeared with Lee at the Heritage event, used his father’s baseball glove as an analogy.
The glove was passed down to his older brother and then to him, Bishop said, but his own children bought him a new glove about 10 years ago. This glove worked better because it wasn’t worn out.
“In many ways, the Antiquities Act is like my old glove,” Bishop told the audience. “There’s nostalgia to it, and there was romance to it.”
Four out of the past six presidents have abused the law, Bishop said.
A handout created by the Sutherland Institute, and distributed at the Heritage event, used data from the National Park Service to show that 66 percent of all acreage designated as national monuments occurred under Obama.
A total of 25 percent of acreage was preserved under George W. Bush, 7 percent under Jimmy Carter, and 1 percent under Bill Clinton, according to the data.
“It’s now time for the government to buy a new glove,” Bishop said. “My dad’s may be nostalgic and nice, and I’m saving it, but it ain’t working anymore.”
Stopping this abuse of power could end a growing rural and urban divide, Lee said, because the practice takes away land where rural Americans work. He stressed that the 1906 law was intended to protect sites from “treasure hunters,” with protected areas being as small as possible.
Citizens currently have to ask to do practically anything on the designated land, Lee said.
Utah also experienced this in a big way in 1996, when Clinton designated another 1.7 million acres to please environmentalists, the Republican senator said.
Lee previously offered an amendment to the Antiquities Act law that would have the states and Congress ratify any presidential order naming a national monument. The Senate narrowly defeated against the amendment, 47-48.
The Trump administration has to fight back, Lee said, noting that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has submitted a report recommending that Trump reduce the protected acreage at Bears Ears.
Executive orders to correct past abuse aren’t enough, Lee added.
“It’s an important first step, but it’s not the entire journey because presidential orders are, of course, reversible,” he said. “As President Obama is finding out, if your legacy lives by executive power, it can just as easily be undone by executive power as well.”