Politics & Policy

Reversing Obama’s Last-Minute Land Grab

Gold Butte, Nevada (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)
The GOP plans to restore control of more than a million acres to the people of Utah and Nevada.

In the waning hours of his presidency, Barack Obama has designated more than 1.5 million acres for two new national monuments — Bears Ears in Utah and Gold Butte in Nevada. State lawmakers in the region have for years debated creating these monuments and had yet to reach a conclusion before Obama made his controversial move Wednesday.

The Bears Ears monument will take up an astounding 1.35 million acres, a region bigger than the state of Delaware, and the Gold Butte monument will cover nearly 300,000 acres in an area often referred to as Nevada’s portion of the Grand Canyon. In a statement, the president asserted that these monuments “will protect places that a wide range of stakeholders all agree are worthy of protection.” He also claimed that his administration “worked to ensure that tribes and local communities can continue to access and benefit from these lands for generations to come.”

But many state lawmakers disagree, arguing that this decision puts vast pieces of land into the hands of the federal government alone, removing power from state lawmakers and thus removing control from the people of Utah and Nevada. These new monuments aren’t the first occasion for such concerns to surface, especially in the western part of the country. The federal government controls 25 percent of all land in the U.S., 50 percent of land west of the Rocky Mountains, and 85 percent of the land in Nevada.

Several Utah politicians have outspokenly opposed the Bears Ears designation, both before the White House made the decision official and after the president announced the move. In a Fox News interview last week, Utah representative Jason Chaffetz said he is firmly opposed to the Bears Ears designation. “It’s one of the biggest land grabs in the history of the United States, and it was done as this midnight monument in the waning hours of the Obama administration,” he said.

Chaffetz expressed the hope that President Donald Trump and his administration will reverse course on these monuments in the coming months, but it’s unclear whether the president’s decision is reversible. In designating these monuments, Obama acted under the authority granted to him by the Antiquities Act of 1906; he has used the Antiquities Act 29 times during his presidency to enact similar executive decisions about land. Franklin Roosevelt is the only president to have acted under the authority of this measure more frequently.

When the Act was first created in the early 20th century, it allowed the president to keep historical or prominent archeological sites from being immediately destroyed, in times when such destruction might come too quickly for Congress to prevent. Monument designations such as those made by President Obama present no emergency and thus ought to fall under Congress’s purview. As GOP lawmakers have argued, the Act was never meant to authorize this type of presidential overreach.

Supreme Court decisions outlining the power granted to the president under this Act suggest that a president can designate land, but he might not have the authority to reverse land designations that have already been made. This would suggest that President Trump will not be able to stop these latest designations in Utah and Nevada.

Even so, Senator Mike Lee of Utah is dedicated to limiting the scope of this decision, whether or not it can be fully undone. For example, it might be possible to narrow the Bears Ears monument to a few hundred acres, which would protect the actual site from destruction but wouldn’t take up the vast expanse of 1.35 million acres. But Lee doesn’t plan to stop there. In a recent op-ed, he promised to fight to repeal the Antiquities Act to prevent future presidential overreach.

Utah’s senior senator, Orrin Hatch, also criticized the decision, calling it an “attack on an entire way of life” and an “astonishing and egregious abuse of executive power.” Like Lee, Hatch plans to work with the new administration to reverse the decision. Meanwhile, Utah’s attorney general, Sean Reyes, has already announced his intention to file a lawsuit against the federal government over the Bears Ears designation.

It might be possible to narrow the Bears Ears monument to a few hundred acres, which would protect the actual site from destruction but wouldn’t take up the vast expanse of 1.35 million acres.

In Nevada, protestors have already gathered to express disapproval over the Gold Butte monument, even as environmental-protection groups and the state’s Democratic lawmakers laud the new designation. For his part, Nevada governor Brian Sandoval lamented the fact that the president “bypassed Congress and the public” in making this decision. The state’s attorney general, Adam Laxalt, called the designation a “unilateral land grab,” saying that Obama’s decision made a “last-minute attempt to cement his environmental legacy by undermining local control of Nevada’s communities, and damaging our jobs and economy.”

We will soon learn whether the incoming administration can completely reverse President Obama’s overreach. Whatever ensues, Republican lawmakers intend to remove both this power and this land from the federal government in order to restore it to the people of Utah and Nevada.

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