By Carolyn Lochhead
WASHINGTON — House Republicans opened an investigation Tuesday into President Obama’s designation of three new national monuments in the California desert that protect more than 1.8 million acres of public land, along with six other monuments Obama has designated since January 2015.
The California desert monuments almost doubled the amount of land that Obama has set aside under the 1906 Antiquities Act, setting a new record for presidential land designations, three committee chairmen wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
“The broad and frequent application of the Antiquities Act raises questions about the lack of transparency and consultation with local stakeholders,” wrote Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee; Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee; and Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Request for documents
The letters request “all documents and communications referring to or relating to the selection or designation of national monuments under the Antiquities Act” from January 2009 to the present, the letter said, setting a deadline of 5 p.m. April 12. Neither the Oversight Committee nor the White House responded to a request for comment.
The Antiquities Act gives the president power to create national monuments on public lands. Republican President Herbert Hoover used the law to establish Death Valley as a monument in 1933 just before he left office, and his successor, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, designated Joshua Tree as a monument under the act in 1936.
Obama invoked the Antiquities Act on Feb. 7 to declare the Mojave Trails, Sand to Snow and Castle Mountains national monuments in the California desert, acting at the direct behest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a longtime champion of the Mojave Desert.
The monuments link wildlife corridors and preserve the last open stretch of historic Route 66, which was under threat of solar and wind development in 2008 until Feinstein stepped in with proposed legislation to protect the areas. The Bureau of Land Management allows mining, grazing, energy and other development on the federal lands under its jurisdiction; the monument designations prohibit such uses.
Feinstein made the request after more than six years of work on a desert conservation bill that Republicans refused to entertain.
The Democrat defended the monuments, saying she and her staff “held hundreds of hours of meetings with the full range of desert stakeholders,” including “environmental groups, local and state government officials, off-highway recreation enthusiasts, cattle ranchers, mining interests, the Defense Department, wind- and solar-energy companies, public utilities, Native American tribes, local residents and many others.”
Feinstein said the Antiquities Act “allows the president to protect ‘historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.’ Anyone who has been to the California desert knows that it has all these things and is certainly qualified for protection under the law.”
The GOP charges of lack of transparency and local consultation flabbergasted desert activists who helped Feinstein draw the boundaries of her legislation, which Obama then borrowed.
“I put probably 20,000 miles on my car — just my car — going around the desert for the last 10 years” talking with people about protecting the lands, said Jim Conkle, a retired Marine who championed the inclusion of Route 66. Conkle said the letters from Chaffetz and Bishop, who represent districts in Utah, and Rogers, from Kentucky, suggest that “we were land grabbers, but we didn’t take any more land than was already under the stewardship of BLM anyway.”
David Lamfrom, California desert program director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said he “worked on the ground building support (for the monuments) for at least the last seven years.”
“I really think it was a nonpartisan effort, and there was general agreement throughout the desert that this was the appropriate response,” he said.
David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, the California nonprofit that was instrumental in protecting the monument lands from real estate speculators, said he thinks the investigation is mainly intended as a warning shot from Utah Republicans to the White House over a potential designation of a 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears national monument in southern Utah.
“There isn’t a monument in U.S. history that has had more participation from the private sector,” Myers said.