Unlike national parks, which Congress designates, national monuments may be created by the president. For a visitor exploring an ancient archaeological site in Colorado or counting sea stars in a California tide pool, that distinction hardly matters. Likewise, in Obama’s newly established Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, some plants and animals adapted to mountain climates are hanging on in a warming world. They are seeking out refugia — from cooler stretches of mountain streams to shady patches of northern slopes — without any awareness of human concerns with legal designations.
In Congress, though, things are never so simple. A bill introduced on Jan. 6 by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would amend the Antiquities Act, completely changing the way that national monuments are created. It’s called the Improved National Monument Designation Process Act, Senate Bill 437, and it is part of a broader movement against federal land management among some Republican lawmakers. In a press release, bill sponsors pointed out that Obama has designated more national monuments by area than any other president. While a previous version of the bill had three cosponsors, the current version has 25, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has referred to such designations as “unjustified federal land grabs.”
National monuments have more flexibility in their operations than national parks and may be run by the Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, or the Bureau of Land Management. Activities allowed in monuments vary: mining, oil extraction, grazing, hunting, and logging all occur in at least some national monuments. Monuments established by Obama have tended to continue activities important to local economies, including grazing. Wildlife management — including hunting and fishing — has stayed the same too. Generally, though, Obama’s national monuments become off-limits to new oil and gas exploration permits.
Despite protests to the contrary, at Bears Ears, national monument designation hasn’t changed current grazing permits, water rights, or fish or wildlife management. Likewise, Native tribes connected to Bears Ears will be able to keep collecting medicines, vegetation, firewood, and other products for personal use. In Gold Butte National Monument, grazing has not been allowed since 1998, a policy that will not change because of monument designation. Gold Butte’s monument designation won’t change existing hunting or fishing policies or water rights, or the rights of tribes in relationship to the area. Still, bill co-sponsors point to Bears Ears and Gold Butte National Monuments as examples of federal land grabs. In future, new fuel exploration permits won’t be allowed in either monument.
The bill currently is being considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by Murkowski.