WASHINGTON – Republicans in the House are one step closer to preventing presidents from unilaterally turning large areas of public land into national monuments, a move that they hope will stop executive orders like those signed by President Clinton before he left office.
Prior to his departure, Clinton created 19 so-called monuments through executive order and expanded three others, for a total of 5.9 million acres transformed into federal lands, much of which are subjected to strict land-use protections.
The House Resources Committee voted 23-18, largely along party lines, to require any presidentially mandated monument of at least 50,000 acres to be ratified by Congress within two years. Without that congressional approval, the status would disappear.
The measure, which is supported by the Bush administration, also requires the president to consult with governors and members of Congress from the area.
House Republicans who support the bill say they want to make sure that what they call presidential abuse never happens again. Most galling to them was the designation of the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah in 1996, done without consultation with state leaders.
"Amending the Antiquities Act to prevent presidential abuse has been one of my top priorities ever since," said Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, who chairs the Resources Committee. "I was appalled at that abuse of power. That should never be allowed to happen again."
A monument designation increases federal protection of the land by banning or restricting uses such as mining, natural gas drilling and off-road vehicle use.
Republicans said the bill would restore Congress' constitutional role of managing federal lands. But Democrats said a handful of opponents could use congressional rules to stall a vote and undo the designation.
"This whole bill guts the Antiquities Act," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.
Dave Alberswerth, a public lands specialist with The Wilderness Society, predicted the Democratic-controlled Senate would kill the bill if it clears the House.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.