WASHINGTON — A California lawmaker has introduced a bill to limit the president's power to establish the national monuments that he says endanger the livelihoods of thousands of loggers, miners and farmers.
The bill by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., would let lawmakers weigh in on a president's designation of public land as new national monuments. The conservative congressman thinks this will restrain what he calls the president's "unfettered discretion."
"We don't need any more monuments, but that's the problem," Nunes said in an interview. "They want to do it."
Nunes is reacting to information suggesting that the Obama administration plans to nominate new monuments or add on to existing monuments.
He was further motivated by recollections of President Bill Clinton's creation in 2000 of the 353,000-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument in the southern Sierra Nevada.
Kent Duysen, general manager and president of Sierra Forest Products, recalled that he had no choice but to shut down one of his mills and let go nearly 250 employees after Clinton created the sequoia monument.
"I remember the crew meeting we had that day," Duysen said. "Shortly after April 15 we just knew that there was not enough timber in the area to support the two mills."
On the other hand, proponents for monument creation, such as Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club's director of public lands protection programs, argue that the designation of these monuments can stimulate a community's economy and actually create jobs.
"It literally puts some of these places on the map and they become economic engines," Manuel said.
However, a study by the Sonoran Institute, a non-profit land management research group, indicated that national monuments and other federal conservation efforts only help healthy economies, and can hurt communities that rely on a single industry like logging or mining.
Today there are 71 national monuments in 26 states, covering some 136 million acres. They range from the 53,000-acre Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho to the 649,000-acre Cape Krusenstern National Monument in Alaska.
Currently, the Antiquities Act of 1906 permits presidents to unilaterally designate publicly owned lands as national monuments. These decisions are embraced by some but are often controversial because, while the land is owned by the government, prior to being designated it can still be used for logging, mining and farming.
Once the monument is established, these industries lose access to the lands, cannot produce at the same levels, and many are forced to shut down plants and mills.
Under Nunes' bill, any new monument nominations must receive congressional approval within two years, or the lands will revert back to their original status, allowing miners and loggers to utilize the properties again.
President Barack Obama has not yet designated any national monuments, but a leaked Interior Department memo appears to identify potential candidates for protection. The list includes, but is not limited to, close to 3 million acres of California's second largest unprotected area, the Modoc Plateau, California's Bodie Hills, and Washington's San Juan Islands.
Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the memo simply reflected "brainstorming sessions" conducted by department staff.
"No decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration," Barkoff said.
Nunes' bill has 11 co-sponsors, all of them Republicans. They include Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Tom McClintock of California.
Nunes acknowledged the bill is a long shot unless Republicans regain control of the House, and past evidence indicates he may be right.
"We know how the extreme radical environmental groups operate," Nunes said, "so we have to head them off."