President Obama is heating up a long-simmering feud with conservative Western lawmakers by vowing to act on his own to place more federal lands off-limits from mining or energy production.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Mr. Obama included land conservation in a long list of issues on which he intends to use his executive authority without input from Congress.
“I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations,” the president said.
It was only one sentence of an hourlong speech, but it set off alarm bells for lawmakers such as Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican.
“It’s almost surreal to have someone say he wants to work with you as long as you’re willing to do it his way, and if you don’t, then he’ll do it anyway,” Mr. Bishop said. “He needs to get local input before taking that route. Congress has to be a player in that.”
Mr. Obama intends to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate vast tracts of land as national monuments. The administration hasn’t indicated which wilderness areas it is considering, but likely targets include the Browns Canyon and the Hermosa Creek watershed in Colorado, and a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, to add thousands of acres to the Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks in Southern California.
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Mr. Bishop is concerned that the president could designate a region in eastern Utah where the lawmaker has been working with stakeholders on proposal that would set aside some land as wilderness and recreation areas, along with portions for mining or other energy production.
“You can do both at the same time,” Mr. Bishop said. “Were he to go in and create a national monument anywhere in eastern Utah that would mess up everything that we’re trying to accomplish. One thing I would like to see in my initiative, which is not being contemplated by him, is establishing guaranteed recreation areas for people. That’s something this administration totally ignores. I think that’s a detriment to society.”
Administration officials say they’re tired of waiting for Congress to act on various bills that would create more national monuments. The 112th Congress, which ended in 2012, was the first in 40 years not to set aside any land for conservation.
In October, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a warning about the administration’s conservation plans in a speech in Washington.
“There’s no question that if Congress doesn’t act, we will act,” she said.
Mr. Obama named five national monuments in June, prompting Mr. Bishop and others to introduce legislation to exempt their states from the president’s unilateral authority. Republican lawmakers from Nevada, Idaho and Montana also expressed interest in exempting their states from national monument designations.
The battle over national monuments is just one area where conservatives argue that Mr. Obama is exceeding his presidential power with an emphasis on executive orders.
Republicans on Capitol Hill said they doubted Mr. Obama had the authority to follow through on many of the executive actions he threatened in his Tuesday address — though they also questioned whether anyone can bring a legal case against him.
“It’s difficult to imagine who’s got standing to challenge this,” Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, told Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. as they debated Mr. Obama’s moves at a Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
Republicans said that at the very least, Mr. Obama should release the legal memos he is using to claim executive authority. Mr. Holder said he would consider making the memos public, but it might dampen the spirit of debate in the Justice Department.
He also said Mr. Obama isn’t breaking ground by turning to executive orders.
“He has made far less use of his executive power at this point in his administration than some of his predecessors. And he will only do so, as I indicated previously, where he is unable to work with Congress to do things together,” Mr. Holder said.
Mr. Obama issued 147 executive orders in his first term, fewer than George W. Bush (173), Bill Clinton (200), Ronald Reagan (213) and Richard Nixon (247), Dwight D. Eisenhower (266) and Harry S. Truman (504) in their first terms.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.