Mindful no doubt of President Clinton's surprise creation of the 1.9-million Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument back in 1996, Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee are chafing over a tentative list of Western landscapes the Obama administration is reviewing for possible protection through use of the Antiquities Act.
Fourteen years ago, surely aware of the uproar in Utah he would create with the Grand Staircase designation, President Clinton made the announcement not in the Beehive State but on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park in neighboring Arizona.
No doubt leery something similar might occur, U.S. Reps. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, on Thursday went on the offensive with a scathing statement saying the administration was scheming to "lock-up at least 13 million acres of land in 11 Western states, cost hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars (in a process that would) be done without Congressional approval." In a separate letter to President Obama, the two accused Interior Department officials of working in secret, "(or perhaps in collaboration with special interest groups) to develop a plan to use Presidential fiat to lock-up vast expanses of land in Western States."
"Like many Americans, we took hopeful notice of your campaign pledge to end the 'business as usual' practices in Washington, D.C., that are so resented by the American public. But this plan, if carried out, will be one of the worst examples of secret insider dealings," the two wrote. "Transparency and public openness will have been cast aside for a process that deliberately prevents local citizens most affected by a designation from having an opportunity to be heard before lands where they live and work to support their families are closed to productive use. There is no legitimate reason that land use decisions cannot be made in an open matter that allows for public participation."
The congressmen's vitriol stemmed from a draft Interior Department document that listed prospective landscapes for designation as national monuments under the Antiquities Act.
The document listed 17 areas across the West, from Cedar Mesa and the San Rafael Swell in Utah and the Red Desert in Wyoming and Vermillion Basin in Colorado to the Berryessa Snow Mountains in California and the Bristol Bay Region in Alaska as candidates for monument status.
The Interior Department responded with a brief statement:
"Secretary Salazar believes it is important that the Department of the Interior serve as wise stewards of the places that matter most to Americans. For that reason, he has asked DOI’s bureaus to think about what areas might be worth considering for further review for possible special management or Congressional designation," said Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Interior's deputy press secretary. "The preliminary internal discussion draft reflects some brainstorming discussions within BLM, but no decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration. Secretary Salazar believes new designations and conservation initiatives work best when they build on local efforts to better manage places that are important to nearby communities.”
While the statement did not point to public and congressional review of whatever list might be finalized, the very first paragraph of the internal document stated that "further evaluations should be completed prior to any final decision, including an assessment of public and Congressional support."
Spencer Pederson, a spokesman for the Republican minority on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday that that language didn't mean the administration actually would seek public and congressional input before making any designations.
"It doesn't say it's necessary," Mr. Pederson said. "It's not necessary within the Antiquities Act."
Even though the document was clearly labeled an internal draft, not a finalized list, the GOP spokesman didn't think his bosses were jumping to conclusions in issuing their statement.
"Mr. Hastings and Mr. Bishop didn't make that statement for the sake of making a statement," said Mr. Pederson. "There are legitimate concerns with blocking off and locking in these areas as national monuments. It's not an attack of the Obama administration just because we're bored."
The DOI document, which also was labeled "NOT FOR RELEASE," was provided to the Republicans by "a trusted source," he said.