Skepticism might be warranted for a Fox News exclusive, especially when it's accompanied by a Republican threatening tar and pitchforks over a non-event. Last Thursday the vulpine network hyperventilated when it obtained a leaked memo: Obama Eyes Western Land for National Monuments, Angering Some, claiming that
Presidential use of the Antiquities Act is highly controversial because the White House, with the stroke of a pen, can lock up thousands of square miles of federal lands used for timber, ranching, mining and energy development without local input or congressional approval. The Act is generally interpreted to commemorate or protect a specific historical landmark, not prohibit development or deprive local communities of jobs and tax revenues.
Welcome to the Republican outrage machine, working hand in paw with Fox to hurt Western state Democrats.
Every viewer of Ken Burns' documentary knows that the Antiquities Act of 1906 might have originally been written to protect Anazasi ruins from pot hunters, but thanks to language permitting a President to declare objects of "scientific interest," was almost immediately was used by President Theodore Roosevelt chafing at Congressional dawdling to declare large swaths of land off limits to development. Arches (UT), Grand Canyon (AZ), Grand Teton (WY), and Katmai (AK), among others, all began as national monuments before becoming national parks. However, there's more to this tale than just inflammatory and misleading writing.
Fox's ire centers on a Department of the Interior memo, headed "internal draft -- not for release," obtained by Rob Bishop (R-UT) and now available on a House Republican website (pdf).
The memo lists 13 areas in the West, beginning with the San Rafael Swell in Utah, worthy of further evaluation:
Located in South-Central Utah, the San Rafael Swell is a 75 by 40 mile giant dome made of sandstone, shale and limestone -- one of the most spectacular displays of geology in the country. The Swell is surrounded by canyons, gorges, mesas and buttes and is home to eight rare plant species, desert big horns, coyotes, bobcats, cottontail rabbits, badgers, gray and kit fox, and the golden eagle. Visitors to the area can find ancient Indian rock art and explore a landscape with geographic features resembling those found on Mars.
The Bureau of Land Management already manages much of the San Rafael Swell, in which geology has folded, twisted, and contorted the land. Miles of waterless slot canyons can be reached only by four wheel drive or very prepared hikers. No humans live in such inhospitable terrain. For the practical among us, the San Rafael Swell is bisected by I-70 between its western terminus at Salina and Green River, nearly 100 miles of seductive, steep, sinuous curves, no radio reception, and no motorist services. (Map, below, credit: San Rafael Swell) The Mars Society, an organization devoted to exploring the Red Planet, selected the Swell to best simulate Mars in setting up a Mars Desert Research Station. Former Utah governor Mike Leavitt, a Republican, advocated a San Rafael National Monument in 2002, echoing a similar push in the 1930s. The Swell is also part of a proposed America's Red Rock Wilderness Act.
Bishop, the national parks' worst enemy in Congress, obtained the memo from a
mole trusted source and ran to Fox, yelling:
We are taking this seriously. The tar is warming up. The pitchforks are ready.
The Fox story goes on to compare Obama's "land grab" to Clinton's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which infuriated residents, at least until they began to see opportunities for tourism.
And the Fox story underlines perceived political peril for President Obama, courtesy of a Bush-era source:
The list contains a number of political land mines for the president, according to a former Bush Interior Department appointee familiar with the document who asked to remain anonymous.
"Right now a number of senior officials are going over the report," he told Fox News. "When Clinton did it, most of the West was red states and he didn't have any blowback. Obama has to ask himself, if he chooses a Nevada location, will it hurt (Senator Harry) Reid's re-election. The same is true in almost every (Western) state where Democrats have made serious inroads."
So how far along is the secret land grab?
Not happening at all, says absolutely everyone not named Bishop. Utah's governor Gary Herbert met with Ken Salazar to be assured that nothing is being fast-tracked in clandestine meetings. The New York Times reports that the memo was simply a brainstorming session, not a secret at all. Even the Fox story is honest enough, at its very end, to check with an Interior Department spokesperson, who says (contrary to Bishop): the memo "reflects some brainstorming discussions within [the Bureau of Land Management], but no decisions have been made about which areas, if any, might merit more serious review and consideration." Just to score cheap political points, Senators Bennett (R-UT) and Hatch (R-UT) and Representative Bishop have introduced a bill requiring Congressional consent before any national monuments are declared in Utah.
All that outrage, all that tar stirred, all those pitchforks collected, for a chimera! Leaving several interesting if self-evident questions:
How are preliminary brainstorming session memos being leaked to Republicans in Congress known to hate national lands?
Why is Fox aiding Bishop in inflating a brainstorming memo into a secret land grab?
Has this draft internal memo been blown up into an "exclusive" for any purpose other than the purpose of undermining support for Democrats in Western states?
Am I the only one bothered by the threat by a member of Congress to tar and pitchfork a President?
And why on earth shouldn't the San Rafael Swell be a national monument anyway?