Congress Addresses Public Land Sovereignty Issues (10/99)

The following column by GAP Intern Scott Broadwell is reprinted from the October 1999 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

Whether you work in industry with a focus on resource extraction, for a small consulting firm with a focus on environmental assessment, or in academia conducting research on esoteric fault-related folding, much of your work is likely to take place on federal lands.  As such, when Congress proposes changes to federal land management, the geoscience community often watches with considerable interest.  Two bills have been introduced in the 106th Congress that, if passed, could significantly affect public land designations.  H.R. 883, the American Land Sovereignty Act, is a familiar bill from the last two congresses.  It would require congressional approval over U.S. participation in the international Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites programs along with the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.  H.R. 1487, the National Monument NEPA Compliance Act, would provide for public participation in the declaration of national monuments. It was introduced as a direct consequence of President Clinton’s September 1996 designation of the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.  Both bills have moved steadily through the House, but as with previous attempts to pass such legislation, little has happened in the Senate.

American Land Sovereignty Act
For the third Congress running, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) has introduced the American Land Sovereignty Act.  Last year his bill passed the House but languished in Senate hearings.  So far this year, a hearing was held on the current iteration by the House Committee on Resources, chaired by Young. The committee subsequently passed the bill on to the full House, where it passed by voice vote on May 20 after the adoption of an amendment from Rep. Bruce Vento (D-MN). The Vento amendment required that the new regulations contained in the bill also be applied to international commercial activity in the United States. Rep. Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV) offered the example of foreign mining companies that do not currently have to pay royalties.  A companion bill, S. 510, was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) and has been referred to the Senate Subcommittee on Forests and Public Lands.  Staying true to the trend set in the 105th Congress, that subcommittee has yet to act on the bill.

Young and other supporters of H.R. 883 are concerned that U.S. participation in the international Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites programs “results in reduced input into land use decisions by state and local government and individuals.” They are also worried that the designations can impact the use and market value of private property, and offer as an example the involvement of the World Heritage Committee in the approval process for the New World Mine Project in Montana adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. The World Heritage Committee placed Yellowstone on its “endangered” list while Crown Butte was still in the process of preparing a lengthy Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The resulting publicity led the company to abandon plans to develop the mine in exchange for congressionally appropriated funds and land elsewhere in Montana.

The Administration and other opponents of this legislation argue that passage of H.R. 883 would essentially kill U.S. participation in worthy, international programs. They point out that designation of a site under these programs does nothing to limit land-use decisions of the participants and simply extends special international recognition. During testimony before the House Committee on Resources, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Melinda Kimble said: “Aside from aiding in international environmental diplomacy and providing a forum by which the United States has been able to assert successfully influence and leadership, [these programs] provide economic benefits to the U.S. (especially with regards to tourism), and our Man and the Biosphere Program provides a valuable framework for international scientific cooperation on the environment.”  Opponents also stress that most U.S. sites named under the programs are already protected with national park or national monument status.

National Monument NEPA Compliance Act
Legislation in response to the president’s declaration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument revolves around the Antiquities Act, the 1906 law that allows the president to unilaterally create national monuments to protect objects of archeological, scientific, or historical interest.  Over the course of this century, the act has been used more than 100 times by 14 presidents, resulting in initial protection for a wide range of current parks and monuments including the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, and the Statue of Liberty.  Because the Antiquities Act also specifies that only the smallest amount of land necessary shall be withdrawn to form a national monument, President Clinton’s declaration of the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has led to accusations that the Administration is abusing its power and side-stepping Congress.

Opponents of current legislative attempts to reform the Antiquities Act find the law to be a valuable and highly successful means of protecting resources and believe that by not requiring congressional approval or action, at-risk lands are able to be quickly withdrawn.  They also point out that Congress retains the power to, in the words of Interior Department Solicitor John Leshy, “fix truly bone-headed” withdrawals.   Proponents of new legislation believe that the Constitution gives Congress power over public lands, and that the Antiquities Act is being used by the president to avoid congressional input and declare large sections of land as wilderness.  They point to the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument and the 56 million acres of national monuments created in Alaska by President Carter in 1978 as examples.  In these two cases, they question what specifically of archeological, scientific, or historical interest is being protected that requires such vast outlays of land.

The Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument in particular has raised the ire of Republicans, perhaps none more so than the Utah delegation, and has been the subject of numerous legislative efforts in Congress.  Currently on the political radar is Rep. James Hansen’s (R-UT) bill H.R. 1487, the National Monument NEPA Compliance Act, which is similar to legislation that passed the House in the last Congress but failed to move in the Senate.  H.R. 1487 has to date passed the House Resources Committee and awaits action on the floor. The bill, as amended by Rep. Vento, requires consultation “to the extent practical” with the governor and delegation of states affected by proposed national monument delegations while subjecting the Secretary of the Interior to the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires completion of an EIS for any major federal action. Leshy stated at a June 17 hearing before the House National Parks Subcommittee that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt would recommend a veto of the bill to the President.

Both the land sovereignty and national monument bills need to generate interest in the Senate to achieve passage, but they have already served to continue an important debate on the proper use of our nation’s public lands.

Scott Broadwell is getting his master's degree from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks in structural geology. He holds a bachelor's degree in geology from the University of New Mexico.


This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted January 4, 2000


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