Republicans are raising questions about the timing and costs of President Obama’s decision to bypass Congress and designate five additional national monuments, coming as it does amid dire warnings about the impact of the most recent round of budget cuts, including to the National Park Service.
The new monuments will be: the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico; the San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington state; the First State National Monument in Delaware and Pennsylvania; the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio and a monument commemorating Harriet Tubman and her role in helping black slaves reach freedom through the Underground Railway in Maryland.
Mr. Obama, who has been highlighting impending cuts to national parks because of the sequester, is using his power as president to designate the five new national monuments.
Rep. Doc Hastings, Washington Republican, said the expansion of the national parks makes no sense — especially considering Mr. Obama’s decision to close the White House doors to public tours because of sequester budget cuts.
“President Obama has closed the White House to public tours but he’s unilaterally ordering the National Park Service to spend scarce dollars on little-known, privately owned property in Delaware,” Mr. Hastings said.
Department of Interior officials insist the cost of the five new monuments will be minimal and will provide substantial economic boosts to local communities around the new parks.
Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the highest-ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who is chairman of the public lands and environmental regulation subcommittee, said they were disappointed that Mr. Obama would circumvent the more open public-land designation process to commit both federal and private lands for national monuments.
“There is a right way to designate federal lands and there is a wrong way. Executive fiat is unquestionably the wrong way and is an abuse of executive privilege,” Mr. Bishop said.
At least one Republican, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, applauded his state’s new monument, saying it “will further honor [Charles Young’s] rich legacy and preserve it for future generations across the country to enjoy.”
Earlier this month, the White House and the National Park Service warned that the across-the-board sequester spending cuts would deal a blow to the parks just as they are trying to gear up for the summer tourism season.
Mr. Obama will use the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate the national monuments. Sixteen presidents have used the law — from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush to Mr. Obama — to protect natural, historical and cultural areas such as the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty, but Republican presidents George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon preferred to allow Congress to make those designations.
When pressed to explain why Mr. Obama decided to move now despite the funding questions, a Department of Interior official emphasized the economic benefits the local communities near the parks would reap compared to the relatively low cost of creating the monuments.
“The five monuments have minimal costs for the federal government,” the official said.
“The [Bureau of Land Management] already owns/manages the lands in New Mexico and Washington. And the National Parks Service is acquiring the lands through generous donations.”
According to a National Parks and Conservation Association Study, in 2006 every federal dollar invested in national parks generated at least $4 of economic value for businesses surrounding the parks.
National parks are responsible for $13.3 billion dollars of local, private-sector economic activity nationwide, supporting 267,000 private-sector jobs, according to the Department of Interior.
Environmental groups, which have criticized Mr. Obama for favoring oil and gas development over setting aside federal land for conservation and recreation, hailed the move.
The Wilderness Society was particularly encouraged by the plan to designate the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in northern New Mexico.