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Little more than a week after President Barack Obama's designation of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, Republicans in the U.S. Senate are reintroducing a bill that aims to limit the executive powers granted in the 1906 Antiquities Act.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, would have no impact on previous designations but would instead require state approval and congressional authorization before any new national monument site is selected on federal lands and waters.
The bill did not pass in the 2016 session, and its revival is a response to Obama's Dec. 28 designations of Bears Ears in Utah and Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada decried by Republicans as acts of federal overreach. It coincides with appeals to President-elect Donald Trump to undo the declarations or reduce their sizes.
"After President Obama abused the Antiquities Act worse than any president in history, now is the perfect time for some common sense public-lands reform," Lee, a Republican, said in a news release. "This bill would take power from the federal government and give it back to the people, where it belongs."
Lee and Hatch, as well as all four of Utah's House members, vehemently opposed the Bears Ears designation. Lee called it an "arrogant act by a lame duck president," and Hatch decried it an "astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power."
Obama's order encapsulates 1.35 million acres of public lands surrounding San Juan County's Cedar Mesa and was enacted at the behest of five American Indian tribes with ancestral and spiritual ties to the area. Its proclamation preserves existing rights to drill, mine and graze within the area, to be administered by the Bureau of Land Management, while preserving cultural sites. Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a nonprofit conservation group based in Bluff, said the proposed Senate bill would make protecting large swaths of land "completely impossible."
"A change like that would mean it doesn't matter how important the landscape is, politics will rule the day," he said.
Ewing also believes the legislation misunderstands the point of the Antiquities Act, which he says allows a president to preserve "places of real significance" when lawmakers haven't acted.
"In the case of Bears Ears, it had been proposed for protection for 113 years," he added. "And for 113 years, Congress had failed to act, the Utah Legislature had failed to act, the Utah governor had failed to act to protect this area."
Hatch, also a Republican, views the Antiquities Act as intended to "give presidents only limited authority to designate special landmarks, such as a unique natural arch or the site of old cliff dwellings."
"The president was never meant to set aside millions of acres through the Antiquities Act," Hatch said in a prepared statement.
Touted as a measure to prevent "unilateral executive decisions," the bill criticizes previous designations for their large size and lack of public input, and purports to improve the process by giving states more say in future monuments.
Obama has invoked the Antiquities Act at least 27 times to set aside sites for conservation more than any other president. Bears Ears, though, reignites anger over then-President Bill Clinton's 1996 surprise designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in the state.
Since the creation of the new Bears Ears monument, area residents have protested, with one family blocking a public road that leads to a popular area inside the monument. The designation also overrides a yearslong effort the Utah Public Lands Initiative led by Rep. Rob Bishop to circumvent a monument. With the bill, Hatch hopes to "strike a balance" between state and executive power in rural areas.
Hatch said: "For too long, Utahns and Westerners have been the victims of unjustified federal land grabs."