Here in the Last Best Place, folks know that you’re only as good as your word, a handshake can still seal a deal, and when you’re neighbor says it’s raining, you don’t need to look outside to know you’ll need an umbrella. Unfortunately, the straight talk culture of Big Sky Country doesn’t exist in Washington. Special interest groups hire slick spinsters to provide political cover for the unpopular actions of unelected bureaucrats.
I’ve introduced the Montana Land Sovereignty Act in the House to make sure that Montanans will always have a seat at the table when it comes to new designations of National Monuments in our state.
The president is currently empowered under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to unilaterally designate new National Monuments in Montana — without any regard whatsoever to local public opinion.
As the name suggests, when the Antiquities Act became law, it was meant to preserve antiques, especially Native American ruins, from looters. It was primarily supported by the Archaeological Institute of America, the American Anthropological Association and the Smithsonian Institution.
It was never intended to circumvent Congress and designate huge parcels of land as National Monuments. In fact, this question was directly considered during the debate on June 5, 1906, when Mr. Stephens of Texas asked on the House floor if the Antiquities Act could be used to tie up large parcels of land. The bills’ sponsor assures him: “Certainly not. The object is entirely different. It is to preserve these old objects of special interest and the Indian remains in the pueblos in the Southwest.”
And while the most appropriate candidates for National Monument designations have been protected over the years, there are some folks who are trying to stretch the authority of the Antiquities Act beyond its intended purpose. And they’ve set their sights on 13 million acres of land across 11 Western states, including Montana.
Now, some have suggested that my Made-in-Montana legislation to protect us from this abuse is unnecessary. They cite promises made by the Obama administration and its allies that there aren’t plans to designate new monuments in Montana. It’s an odd claim because we know there are, in fact, plans. Their “NOT FOR RELEASE” plan was leaked, and is now posted on my website along with more than 300 pages of emails that included reports of high-level conversations between Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and our Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus.
Perhaps most revealing of all, last September, the Obama administration started holding public meetings to discuss these plans. They got an earful from local residents, thousands of whom have contacted my office in support of the Montana Land Sovereignty Act. But the meeting itself begs a serious question: If there are no plans, then why is the Obama administration holding public meetings about them?
Frankly, the whole thing doesn’t pass the smell test. We’ve been here before. In 2001, Montana got burned by the Clinton Administration’s last-minute designation of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Under current law, President Obama can declare new monuments at any time. In fact, that’s exactly what his Bureau of Land Management recommends.
Consider this excerpt from the leaked plan (which, we’re told doesn’t exist): “Should the legislative process not prove fruitful, or if a nationally significant natural or cultural land resource were to come under threat of imminent harm, BLM would recommend that the Administration consider using the Antiquities Act to designate new National Monuments by presidential proclamation,” (pages 4-5).
There’s no call for public discussion in this fully articulated plan of action. Circumventing the “legislative process” is code for shutting out the American people. Acting by “presidential proclamation” means legislating with the stroke of a pen. This is the action recommended to the Obama administration by the Bureau of Land Management in 48 states.
There’s a different plan in two states — Wyoming and parts of Alaska. In those states, the law has been updated to require Congressional approval for new National Monument Designations. The president is not the final authority. Here’s the BLM plan for those states: "The BLM also recommends that the Administration begin a dialogue with Congress to encourage the conservation of these areas," (page 6).
If you’re like me, you think “a dialogue” is better than a unilateral “presidential proclamation.” The Montana Land Sovereignty Act gives Montana the exact same protection that Wyoming currently has. As demonstrated above, that simple change encourages dialogue instead of unilateral presidential proclamations.
Shouldn’t questions of public land use involve the local communities that live, work and play on that land more than anyone else? The Montana Land Sovereignty Act does not make future monument designations impossible. If there are worthy candidates in the state, they can still be protected as long as there is public support. All my legislation does is make sure that Montanans are intimately involved in that decision.
There’s just no reason to oppose this common sense precaution unless you’re counting on catching folks off guard with another last-minute designation.
(Rep. Denny Rehberg is a Republican representing Montana.)