President Biden had no sooner taken the oath of office when stories began circulating in the media that he was thinking about changing the sizes of national monuments that President Trump had shrunk after he took office.
The partners are changing. Allemande left is becoming allemande right, with a do si do of politicians and interest groups who will promenade and then face off for a war of words. Again.
Already, Utah’s congressional delegation, Gov. Spencer Cox and legislative leaders have issued a statement urging Biden to work with state and local leaders to find a consensus, “a permanent solution approved by Congress.”
This is what happens when the law allows presidents to bypass a democratic process and make land (or sea) decisions by fiat. Monuments shrink and grow every few years like Baby Boomers on fad diets as the balance of power in Washington shifts from one side to the next and back again. People whose interests are endangered always talk about compromise, while those in power have little reason to come to the table so long as a president can move things their way with the stroke of a pen.
Some people think this began in 1996 when President Bill Clinton famously went to Arizona to declare the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument in Utah, without notifying any of the state’s leaders. That’s wrong. It began much earlier, in 1906. That’s when Congress passed the Antiquities Act.
There were good reasons for this act at the time. Pot hunters were making off with many of the ancient treasures on sacred lands. News reports said tons of relics from Utah cliff dwellings ended up at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and then were put up for auction.
The thinking was that President Teddy Roosevelt needed the power to be nimble enough to act quickly to save endangered treasures without a lengthy public process. The Antiquities Act is vaguely worded, for the most part, but it does specify that monuments should cover the smallest area possible.
That has been broadly interpreted through the years, and not without controversy. Alaska got Congress to limit these powers within its borders after President Carter declared 56 million acres of wilderness there. Wyoming got an exemption after President Franklin Roosevelt raised hackles with a designation in 1943.
Two things happen when presidents get this sort of power. They are tempted to create monuments that help themselves politically, and the delicate balance among competing interests is upset. Cooperation melts away. Name calling begins. Republicans are characterized as interested only in drilling and Democrats as taking away local jobs and locking up resources.
Some have attempted compromises. Former Utah Rep. Rob Bishop spearheaded one attempt at middle ground through much of Easter Utah that failed.
That doesn’t mean a middle ground couldn’t be found. Virtually everyone involved seems to agree parts of Bears Ears should be protected. The sacred nature of the land ought to be given the highest level of consideration. But local and state leaders deserve a say, too.
It’s just that, as long as one man in Washington holds all the power, finding that middle ground remains hard.
We can hope President Biden begins a public process before making his decision, but we can’t count on it.
It’s time to amend the Antiquities Act to at least require Congress to ratify or alter a president’s actions after a period of time. It’s time to inject democracy, with all its tugs and pulls, into this contentious area of public policy.
A court case is pending against Trump’s decision to reduce the size of monuments. But even if the court decides to limit such powers, it won’t keep presidents from declaring new monuments without a public process.
It won’t stop the endless dance from picking up steam every few years.