- - Thursday, April 27, 2017


The Antiquities Act of 1906 was a splendid idea. The Act was intended to give presidents limited authority — emphasis on the word “limited” — to designate unique and special landmarks, such as a natural arch, breathtaking mesas or an ancient cliff dwelling that deserves to be preserved for future generations. Certain presidents have abused this authority and seized millions of acres of private land for federal regulation. Barack Obama used the Act 27 times, more than any other president.

President Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review dozens of national monuments to determine whether such designations imposed since 1996 have gone above and beyond the limits of the Antiquities Act, and whether Congress should reform the Act to prevent further presidential abuse. “Today,” the president says, “we are putting the states back in charge.”

Mr. Trump was persuaded that reform is necessary by the seizure last year of more than a million acres in southeastern Utah for the Bears Ears National Monument, twin buttes that tower over a rugged landscape of jagged red rocks. Archaeological sites detailing the history of the land’s ancient inhabitants abound in the area. Barack Obama set aside more than a million acres with his order just as he was leaving the White House with the stroke of his pen, to the applause of radical left-wing preservationist groups that won’t be satisfied until no privately held land is left anywhere. From the people who live in Utah, not so much.

The Utah congressional delegation had worked with residents, Indian tribes and state government officials to develop a plan to preserve the land, a consensus forged in hundreds of meetings over three years. “In good faith,” says Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Republican senior senator from Utah, in an op-ed newspaper essay, “we coordinated with President Barack Obama … but in the twilight hours of his presidency he betrayed us, forgoing our grass-roots effort in favor of a top-down monument designation unprecedented in size and scope … He ignored the best interests of Utah and cast aside the will of the people — all in favor of a unilateral approach meant to satisfy the demands of far-left interest groups.”

Mr. Hatch and Mike Lee, the other Utah senator, proposed legislation last year to require state approval and congressional authorization before new national monuments can be declared on federal land and water. The bill failed, but the controversy grew and controversy will no doubt survive President Trump’s order. The Obama seizure was taken at the behest of five Indian tribes claiming ancestral and spiritual ties to the area. Existing rights to drill, mine and graze the land would be preserved, but only under federal regulation and supervision by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Josh Ewing, executive director of the Friends of Cedar Mesa, a liberal conservative group, criticized the Hatch-Lee legislation as making protection of such land impossible. “A change like that would mean it doesn’t matter how important the landscape is, politics will rules the day.”

Well, exactly. Politics should rule the day, because “politics” is the way contentious issues are worked out by the people in a democracy. Barack Obama’s expensive tip of his hat, and then some, to radical environmental groups was “politics.” So is President Trump’s order returning the “politics” of land management to the people, in this case to the people of Utah. It was the right thing to do.

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