The Republican faux outrage machine has new grist for its mill: a claimed land grab by Interior Department officials. Congresscritter Rob Bishop (R-UT-01) obtained what he said was a secret memo listing 14 potential national monuments and began yelling about tar and pitchforks, Fox News claimed an "exclusive," and what I thought was a couple of days' worth of spin cycle ensued.
The story isn't going away. Republicans think they have a winner of an issue, a transparent effort to peel away independent voters in Western states. Their real motive is to retain the ability to drill for oil and gas on public lands. Consider it a second Sagebrush Rebellion.
As any viewer of Ken Burns' documentary on our best idea knows, the President has the power to declare national monuments without Congressional approval in 48 states. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the President power to protect "objects of historic and scientific interest." Congressional drafters may have intended to limit its use to small Southwestern Native American lands being raided by pothunters, but Theodore Roosevelt and later Presidents promptly used the Act to set aside large tracts of land such as Devils Tower (WY) and Grand Canyon (AZ).
Three past Presidential proclamations of national monuments have stirred hornets' nests. Franklin Roosevelt created a Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, incurring Wyoming legislators' hatred; in 1950 the land became, mostly, Grand Teton National Park but a rider was added stating that no President could declare a national monument in Wyoming without Congressional consent. Jimmy Carter likewise created huge national parks in Alaska in 1980, leading to a similar result prohibiting large national monuments in Alaska. Most recently, Bill Clinton's declaration of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah created bad feelings but, so far, no legislation prohibiting national monuments in Utah. Sixty years later, only the most rabid anti-government teabaggers would like to abolish Grand Teton. Residents of southern Utah are beginning to see the benefits of tourism, but resentment lingers.
The current outrage began with an Interior Department memo, labeled "Internal Draft -- NOT FOR RELEASE" describing 14 potential sites throughout the West for national monuments. Interior Department officials quickly clarified that the memo wasn't a top secret at all, but merely a very, very, very preliminary internal working document resulting from a brainstorming session. Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar assured Utah Governor Gary Herbert that the federal government had no plans for a "land grab."
Despite that reassurance, western Republicans are moving forward aggressively on many different fronts.
* Bishop, joined by Senators Bob Bennett (R-UT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), has introduced a bill, S. 3016, to bar any new national monuments in Utah without Congressional approval, similar to the 1950 ban on monuments in Wyoming. (Two of the 14 areas on the brainstorming memo, the San Rafael Swell and the Cedar Mesa region, are in Utah.)
* Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) plans a similar bill affecting Alaska.
* Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) proposed an amendment to a routine Capitol Police funding bill to bar any new national monuments, anywhere. I'm pleased to report that it failed 58-38, with Republicans Lamar Alexander (TN), Susan Collins (ME), Judd Gregg (NH), and Olympia Snowe (ME) joining the sensible people.
* Fourteen House Republicans, led by Bishop, wrote to Salazar demanding all documents relating to any Interior Department internal discussions.
* In Utah, a state senate committee approved an anti-national monument resolution urging the President not to designate national monuments anywhere in the state.
Why all this fuss over a preliminary brainstorming memo? We, the people, already own the land; we're not grabbing it from ourselves! Of course, the designation of a national monument should have some local input, but nothing in the memo suggests that local opinion will be ignored. Instead, Republicans are pushing this for political and policy reasons.
Republicans see this as a wedge issue: how better to show the contrast between limited-government off-roaders who hate guv'mint intervention and latte-sipping land-grabbing socialists? They're looking to repeat the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s (which ended only when a western Republican, Ronald Reagan, was elected and rewrote Bureau of Land Management policies). They're looking to return Mountain West states that Obama carried in 2008 to Republican control.
Second, many of the 14 tracts are already managed by the BLM, which has historically been far friendlier to oil and gas drilling than the National Park Service, which manages many national monuments. For example, the Bush-era BLM approved oil and gas drilling on the vast majority of Otero Mesa's 1.2 million acres; Otero Mesa is one of the last remaining vestiges of grasslands -- America's most endangered ecosystem. (Drilling is suspended pending litigation.) It's not a coincidence that Murkowski, the Senate's biggest recipient of oil money, is getting involved even though no eligible Alaska lands are on the memo. Republicans want unfettered access, not for the off-road recreational community, but for their oily donors who seek only to plunder the land.
(xposted at The Seminal)