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Congressman Tom McClintock

Representing the 4th District of California

Oversight Hearing on “Examining the Consequences of Executive Branch Overreach of the Antiquities Act”

May 2, 2017

Congressman McClintock is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Federal Lands.  The subcommittee held an oversight hearing on May 2, 2017.  Congressman McClintock delivered the following opening statement:

Opening Statement of Chairman Tom McClintock
House Committee on Natural Resources
Subcommittee on Federal Lands

Oversight hearing on “Examining the Consequences of Executive Branch Overreach of the Antiquities Act”

The Subcommittee on Federal Lands meets today to hear testimony concerning abuses of the Antiquities Act of 1906 and possible reforms to prevent such abuses in the future.  

The Antiquities Act provides the President with the authority to designate national monuments on federal land containing “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest.” The law also specified that National Monuments “be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Furthermore, the President could only designate National Monuments “upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States.” 

The purpose of the act was to give Presidents the ability to quickly protect archeological sites from looting.  

In the original Congressional debate over the bill, Congressman Stephens asked whether it could ever be used to lock up large areas of land like the Forest Reserve bill. In response, its sponsor, Congressman Lacey, stated: “Certainly not. The object is entirely different. It is to preserve these old objects of special interests in the Southwest, whilst the (Forest Reserve bill) reserves the forests and the water courses.” 

President Theodore Roosevelt first used this limited authority to declare 1,200 acres around the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming as a national monument.  Since that time, Presidents broadly interpreted the Antiquities Act to expand both the size and justifications for National Monument designations.  

Today, the subcommittee will hear testimony surrounding the designation of millions of acres under this act.  Indeed, in the last eight years, the Obama administration used it to declare national monument status over 553.4 million acres of land and water.  That’s equivalent to the entire states of Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona combined, with an extra 50,000 square miles to spare.

 As we will hear, these designations were often imposed in spite of local opposition, without consultation with Congress or the state and local governments affected, and without regard to the economic damage these designations have had on surrounding communities.

The restrictions on public use under these designations can be severe – in many cases prohibiting road access to the public and specifically forbidding hunting, fishing and other traditional recreational pursuits.  

Management of forests within these national monuments is often so restricted that forest thinning projects for habitat health and fire prevention become impossible.  

Lands set aside to support financing of public purposes no longer produce that income.  As we will hear today, the economic impacts can often devastate local communities by shutting down resource development projects upon which these communities depend.

The Constitution gives to Congress alone the jurisdiction over public lands.  Consistent with this authority, this subcommittee serves three over-arching objectives: to restore public access to the public’s lands; to restore proper management of the public’s lands; and to restore the federal government as a good neighbor to those communities impacted by the public lands.  Ongoing abuses of the Antiquities Act are antithetical to these goals and make a mockery of the clear intention of Congress in adopting this act.

Possible reforms to prevent these abuses include acreage limitations on this authority and a requirement that local and state governments be included in the decisions.  

It has been falsely asserted in several forums that the Antiquities Act is what creates National Parks.  While several national monuments have later become national parks, that authority rests entirely with Congress, and for good reason.  While the executive should be able to move swiftly to protect small archeological sites from imminent threat of looting or desecration, the decision over whether to set aside vast portions of land in perpetuity should only be made after the lengthy debate, public input and accountability that are the unique attributes of the legislative branch.  

Clearly this was intended both by the American Founders and by the authors of the Antiquities Act, but as is often the case with small grants of power made to the executive, they can gradually expand into absurd overreaches.  

The kings of England once seized one third of the English countryside as the “King’s Forests,” making them the exclusive preserves of the government and its favored aristocrats while placing them off-limits to the common people.  America’s public lands are exactly the opposite.  They are set aside – in the words of the original Yosemite Charter – for the public’s “use, resort and recreation…for all time.”  This subcommittee has become increasingly concerned with government-imposed restrictions on the public’s use, resort, and recreation of the public lands.  Preserving these lands for future generations does NOT mean closing them to the current generation.