By Michael Bastasch
Republican lawmakers and ranchers relying on access to federal lands are gearing up to push back against the Obama administration’s use of a century-old law to lock up millions of acres of public lands from development.
The White House has used the Antiquities Act of 1906 designate more than 260 million acres of federally-controlled lands and waters as 17 national monuments, which makes it harder to drill or ranch on lands that may have traditionally been used for that purpose.
The president used the law to expand federal lands more than any of his predecessors, and Republicans and ranching groups have called the president’s actions “land grabs” aimed at locking up areas from any economic activity.
These unilateral designations may earn praise from environmentalists, but they worry pro-ranching advocates who see communities being destroyed and livelihoods being put at risk by making it harder to access federal lands.
“When these designation come in, it doesn’t just upset what is in play today, it affects those rural communities that have been in place for generations,” Brenda Richards, president of the Public Lands Council, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“These designations don’t take into consideration what’s already going on out there,” Richards said, pointing to the numerous other designations being considered by the president.
Increasingly, ranchers, farmers and others who rely on access to federal lands for grazing feel their livelihoods are being threatened by Obama’s monument designations. That worry is especially acute for those in the western U.S. where nearly half the land is controlled by the federal government.
The Antiquities Act was passed in 1906 under President Teddy Roosevelt, and was meant to designate archaeological sites of cultural and scientific importance on public lands, including American Indian sites. It gives the president the power to designate lands that need protecting.
While presidents can’t use the law to take control of private property, it allows them to make it harder to ranch, drill, or mine on already existing public lands. That means people who have relied on access to lands for generations, like many ranchers have, could see their access curtailed or ended altogether.
“The permits are no longer just renewed under the basic aspect they would,” Richards said. “They are under more scrutiny and there’s a lot of litigation that comes.”
What’s more is Obama is using the Antiquities Act to designate huge swaths of land, when the law was meant to only be used on small land designations.
Most recently, Obama designated 1.8 million acres in California’s desert as national monuments, which angered Republicans who say Obama is abusing his power under the Antiquities Act — 45 percent of California’s land is federally-controlled.
“This is presidential bullying,” Republican Utah Rep. Rob Bishop said of Obama’s recent monument designations. “The intent of the Antiquities Act is not to act as the President’s magic wand to commandeer land.”
House Republicans recently wrote to the White House demanding information on how the administration goes about choosing which lands the president will unilaterally bring under stricter federal management.
Obama is considering designating millions of more acres of land as national monuments, including 2.5 million acres in southeastern Oregon. The Public Lands Council argues this will be another designation where local communities aren’t consulted, but saddled with negative economic impacts.
“They are looking at such a large area,” Richards said. “For those rural communities that are the fiber for those areas, without any economic analysis it’s really just a stroke of the pen.”
While activists claim there are economic benefits to living near a national monument from tourism, locals aren’t always eager to trade ranching for tourism. Ninety percent Residents of Malheur County, Oregon, recently voted against the proposed Owyhee Canyonlands Monument.
The vote, however, was non-binding and Obama could still move forward with the monument designation. Malheur residents are only of the many rural communities across the western U.S. fighting to preserve their access to public lands.
“Once that designation is made, it puts everything in motion,” Richards said. “It doesn’t guarantee these rural communities are set up for tourism.”
“More often than not, we see those small rural community businesses close,” she said.