Wyoming pond-2

Property rights advocates are pleading for President Trump to get much more aggressive in rolling back national monument declarations on federal lands, asserting jobs and communities are scarce because of Uncle Sam’s tight grip on any sort of activity in those areas.

At issue is a 1906 law called the Antiquities Act. Originally designed to protect sensitive areas containing fossils and petrified wood from looters in the sparsely populated western United States, the law gave the president the power to unilaterally protect vulnerable sites, with the specific instruction of taking control of as little land as possible to get the job done.

Over the past 111 years, however, the government has gotten far more aggressive in designating larger and larger swaths of lands in the West and elsewhere as national monuments and grinding business and recreational activity to a halt.

“They just use it to prevent the American people from using their own land. That’s what president Trump said he would end, that he would end this egregious abuse of federal power and return the decisions on how these lands are used to the people who live on the land,” said Robert J. Smith, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

Smith’s organization is leading a push consisting of 37 different groups and activists in getting Trump to take decisive action on the issue.

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They are worried that Trump will tread lightly since Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke conducted a study of what many property rights advocates consider the 27 greatest abuses of the Antiquities Act. They were not impressed with Zinke’s conclusions.

“I don’t think he has really followed the directions he got from President Trump to really look at these and end this abuse of federal power. On most of them, he has essentially left them as they are. I think all these that were under consideration – all 27 – should be rescinded,” said Smith.

Smith is urging the president not to accept Zinke’s recommendations.

“When he has finally had a chance to go through Zinke’s report, he should send him back to the drawing board and say, ‘That’s a nice start but now you really have to do what I suggested and that’s end this abuse of federal power,'” said Smith.

The Antiquities Act was first used by Theodore Roosevelt to protect Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a designation that put two square miles under tighter federal control. Smith says that cautious approach was largely honored until 1996 and presidents of both parties have pushed the envelope ever since.

President Bill Clinton stirred major controversy by designating in 1996 by designating Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante as a national monument without ever conferring with any Utah officials. That move locked up 1.9 million acres of land by the federal government with the stroke of a pen.

Smith says there was an ulterior motive other than just keeping certain lands pristine. Environmental groups were threatening to boycott Clinton’s re-election that year unless he gave them what they wanted in terms of national monument declarations.

And why did the green movement have their eyes on that particular land?

“Among other things, it included the Kaiparowits coal deposits, one of the two largest EPA-compatible clean coal deposits on the planet, enough clean coal to run the U.S. for hundreds of years,” said Smith.

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Smith says Clinton authorized other major land grabs, so did George W. Bush and he says Barack Obama did it “in spades.” In fact Bush and Obama teamed up for an unthinkably huge monument designation that didn’t even involve land.

“One of those was called the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, created first by George W. Bush and then expanded by Obama. It’s 500,000 square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” said Smith.

Smith says the economic impact of national monument designations has been devastating to job creation and the economies of the local communities. With no development allowed, good jobs in energy exploration, forestry and mining are gone and only low-paying service jobs remain to cater to the tourists visiting the monuments.

He says the creeping of federal control also makes it harder for ranchers to let their cattle graze, as locks on grazing areas will suddenly be changed. Even vehicular traffic is greatly restricted in many of these areas despite government promises that would not happen.

Smith hopes Trump will push Zinke to be much more aggressive in his recommendations. But he says Congress ultimately holds the key on this problem and needs to repeal the 1906 Antiquities Act.

“It’s an antiquated act. These western lands are not unpopulated and unwatched and being looted and pillaged and destroyed today. In fact you just about can’t do anything on these lands. Almost everything is now illegal,” said Smith.

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