Senator introduces bill preventing protection of places like Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument was designated under the Antiquities Act, a law whose use Sen. Mike Lee wants to sharply limit. 

Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS).

Sen. Mike Lee has offered legislation that would effectively end protection of places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

About a week after outlining a public lands vision that centers on making wildlands more likely to be leased for oil and gas drilling or sold off to private interests, Sen. Mike Lee introduced legislation to effectively bar national monument designations in the state of Utah.

Lee is an avowed member of the anti-conservation fringe, probably best known for joining other Utah officials in helping convince President Trump to eliminate protections for over 2 million acres of land in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in 2017.

His new proposal would go a step further, snubbing out the monuments of the future before they even get off the ground.

“The Wilderness Society opposes any efforts to sell out our nation’s natural and cultural heritage to an elite few,” said Brad Brooks, director of the Wilderness Society’s public lands campaign, in a July 3 statement previewing this and two other bills Lee plans to introduce. “We will hold Senator Lee and all members of Congress accountable for proposing to destroy our system of public lands.”

Antiquities Act an enduring tool to protect nature and culture

Lee's bill, the Protecting Utah’s Rural Economy Act, would prevent use of the Antiquities Act in Utah without approval from Congress and state lawmakers.

Four of Utah’s cherished “Mighty Five” national parks were first protected through the Antiquities Act. Sen. Mike Lee wants to effectively end use of that law in the state.

Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act is used to designate cultural and natural landmarks on publicly owned land as national monuments, and it has been used to protect iconic spots ranging from the Grand Canyon to Maine's Acadia National Park. Its great strength as a conservation tool is that it offers presidents a way to cut through fractious legislative politics and meet local communities' needs in a direct way (President Obama used it to establish Bears Ears; President Clinton to establish Grand Staircase-Escalante).

Many cherished national parks were originally protected under monument status, and hampering use of the Antiquities Act is seen as making the establishment of future national parks dramatically less likely. Four of Utah’s cherished “Mighty Five” national parks–Arches, Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef—were first protected through the law.

But Lee has repeatedly tried to undercut the Antiquities Act, even saying it "contains much of what I came to Washington to fight.” These attempts included celebrating the National Park Service's centennial in 2016 by introducing a similar (and slightly broader) measure. But in the Trump era, the beliefs undergirding these attacks, once distinctly outside the mainstream, are more prominent than ever, threatening to destroy some of America’s favorite outdoor places.

Monuments popular, economically important

Contrary to Lee's suggestions that curtailing the Antiquities Act will help small-town economies, research indicates national monuments actually help the bottom line for neighboring communities—including in the case of Grand Staircase-Escalante--and even voters in notoriously federal government-averse Utah generally see the value of such designations. Anecdotal evidence as well as public comments submitted to the Trump administration by Utahns indicate significant opposition to the Trump administration's monument cuts.

More: Locals share what they think of Trump's monument cuts

But Lee is part of the notorious Utah congressional delegation whose policies gave the annual Outdoor Retailer Show no choice but to finally leave the state--one of the lawmakers who marches to the beat of oil, gas, mining and other extractive interests, even if it doesn’t align with his constituents’ views.

Lee’s pet projects include selling off public lands and limiting options to conserve greater sage-grouse habitat, and he has voted to pave the way for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and effectively end the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which takes royalties from drilling and gives those funds to the government to purchase land for parks and open spaces.

Public lands like Bears Ears National Monument belong to all Americans, and lawmakers shouldn’t be inventing ways to stop protecting them.

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