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Washington • Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee introduced legislation Thursday to exempt the state from a law allowing the president to designate new national monuments, but critics dismissed the move as a desperate "Hail Mary" in trying to halt protection of the Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah.
The measure would prohibit the president's use of the 1906 Antiquities Act within Utah, extending a loophole that now covers Wyoming, as part of an effort to keep President Barack Obama or his successors from using the unilateral power to create national monuments.
Environmentalists and tribal leaders have urged Obama to act to preserve some 1.8 million acres of federal land in the southeastern corner of the state.
"New Yorkers would not appreciate it if Utahns came in and told them what they could and couldn't build in Manhattan, and Utahns don't like it when out-of-state special-interest groups tell us how to use our land either," Lee said in a statement. "Over 50 years ago, the state of Wyoming was granted protections from Antiquities Act abuse in their state, and all Utahns are asking is for that same protection to be extended to their state."
(The 1950s legislation creating an expanded Grand Teton National Park was passed with the significant concession to opponents that the Antiquities Act would not again be used in Wyoming without the consent of Congress.)
Proponents of a national monument designation for Bears Ears say that Hatch and Lee's legislation has no real shot of passing and shows desperation by Utah's members of Congress against action by the Obama administration.
"Senator Lee confuses private land in New York for the public lands in Utah that belong to all Americans," said Jen Ujifusa, legislative director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "The Utah delegation had three years to develop a meaningful and reasonable conservation solution with the Public Lands Initiative, but squandered that opportunity by listening only to industry and parochial interests. This last-ditch Hail Mary shows they know the PLI has failed."
Hatch noted then-President Bill Clinton's creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah in 1996 that "blindsided" the state.
"Today, we are again faced with the threat of a unilateral designation of another 1.8 million-acre monument in southeast Utah," Hatch said. "Such a designation would far exceed the purpose of the Antiquities Act, which was written specifically to protect special cultural sites and objects limited to the smallest compatible area necessary."
The PLI legislation by Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz, both Utah Republicans, to preserve some areas in the region and set aside others for oil and gas development is now being vetted in the House, though Congress has only a short time in session this month before adjourning until after Election Day. Both Utah congressmen insist there is still time to pass the measure