August 10, 2008 at 5:09AM
by Jim DiPeso
The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, is one of the lesser known gems of federal conservation law.
At four paragraphs, it is a model of statutory brevity. In execution, however, the Antiquities Act has been a powerful legal tool. Presidents from both parties have used the laws authority to establish national monuments protecting Americas great heritage treasures from the Statue of Liberty in the countrys biggest metropolis to the remotest wild lands of the West.
Off and on, presidential use of the Antiquities Act has driven conservation opponents and members of Congress to distraction. They have tried, and mostly failed, to curtail the presidents authority.
In 1950, a Democratic Congress revoked the presidents authority to apply the Antiquities Act in Wyoming, after a political firestorm over Franklin Roosevelts use of the law to protect an area that is now part of Grand Teton National Park.
Nearly five decades later, Bill Clinton drove congressional Republicans nuts when he took up Bruce Babbitts suggestion that he use the Antiquities Act to create a conservation legacy for his presidency. Riders to drain the ink from Clintons monument proclamation pen were attached repeatedly to appropriations bills, but none were enacted into law.
Now, along comes Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, for another go at weakening the Antiquities Act. Landrieu this past week introduced S. 3438, legislation that would bar President Bush and his successor from using the law to establish marine national monuments in the Exclusive Economic Zone, extending out 200 miles from any shoreline in U.S. territory. The prohibition would remain in force until September 30, 2009.
Its the height of irony a Democrat trying to stop Bush from doing something good for the environment. What has gotten Landrieu into a twist about a law that has never been applied in Louisiana?
In 2006, Bush used the Antiquities Act to establish the 89.6 million-acre Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It is a treasure trove of coral reefs, archaeological sites, and rare creatures, including the endangered monk seal.
The same legacy bug that bit Clinton is buzzing around Bush. Talk about being the Theodore Roosevelt of the seas has gotten him thinking about proclaiming more such monuments, perhaps in the Gulf of Mexico, where there are deep sea corals needing protection from poachers and drill bits.
Landrieu is more interested in oil drilling than deep sea corals. Also, the word from her office is that she has a serious bone to pick with Bush over his administrations inept response to Hurricane Katrina. He wont be flinging blue monuments into the Gulf just to get a gentlemans C on his checkered environmental record if she has anything to say about it, no sir.
Granted, the Bush administration did a rotten job with Katrina. But thats no reason to weaken one of the most successful conservation laws in the nation. And if Landrieu is trying to head off a Gulf of Mexico monument, why is she trying to stop marine monuments elsewhere?
In introducing the bill, Landrieu argued that Bush was guilty of misuse of the law, which, she continued, was passed to protect landmarks, not create the largest protected areas in the United States unilaterally without congressional assent.
Sorry, Senator, but that dog wont hunt. In fact, it died on the porch a century ago. In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to protect more than 800,000 acres in and around the Grand Canyon. His successors, Rs and Ds, used his precedent to ample effect. Multi-million-acre monuments were proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Jimmy Carter, in addition to Clinton and Bush.
Two years ago, a federal appeals court turned aside a legal challenge against Clintons proclamation establishing the 1 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. The appeals court upheld a ruling from a lower court judge, appointed by George H.W. Bush, that Clinton had lawfully exercised his authority to establish the monument.
The Antiquities Act has served America well. Landrieus legislation would set a precedent to no good end. If Senate Democratic leaders are as green as they claim to be, they will kill this awful bill.