American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update and Hearing Summary on H.R. 901, the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act (12-10-98)

105th Congress Action
In September 1996, President Clinton used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, an action which invoked the ire of many Congressional members. Senators, Representatives and local government officials have expressed concern over the chief executive's powers to designate monuments where there may be prevailing mining or development interests. As a result, several bills were introduced and hearings held to limit Presidential powers in this area and to address other issues associated with land sovereignty.

H.R. 901 was introduced by Resources Committee Chairman Young after his first bill on land sovereignty, H.R. 3752, did not pass the House in the 104th Congress. H.R. 901, the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act, is written to cancel the United Nations Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage programs and eliminate the designation of 67 sites in the United States unless they are approved by Congress. According to the bill's official title, it intends "to preserve the sovereignty of the United States over public lands and acquired lands owned by the United States, and to preserve State sovereignty and private property rights in non-Federal lands surrounding those public lands and acquired lands."

Since its introduction, the bill gained 171 cosponsors. On March 6, 1997, the Resources Committee requested executive comment from the Departments of State and the Interior. A field hearing was held in Tannersville, New York on May 5, 1997. On June 10, 1997, the Resources Committee held an oversight hearing on H.R. 901. During the hearing, individual property owners received much support from Committee members, who questioned the validity and process of United Nations Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage site designations. A summary of the hearing is provided below. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Historic Preservation, and Recreation held a hearing on several bills relating to the Antiquities Act and certain United Nation's designations --including H.R. 901 -- on February 12, 1998.

The House Resources committee held a markup for H.R. 901. Tense exchanges took place between Republican supporters of the bill, Chairman Don Young (AK), Rep. Barbara Cubin (WY), and Rep. Helen Chenoweth (ID), and the Democratic opposition, Rep. Edward Markey (MA) and Rep. Bruce Vento (MN). Despite the efforts of Markey and Vento, the bill was ordered to be reported by a roll call vote of 26 to nine. A summary of the hearing is provided below.

On October 7th, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 901 by a 236-191 vote, but the Senate did not act on the bill. A similar bill, S. 691, was introduced in the Senate by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski (R-AK) but did not advance. The Senate bill would require Congressional approval of Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage, and national monument designations. The Senate bill also requires that agencies follow the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (P.L. 91-190) by studying the effects of these designations and including public participation in the process.

Congressional Hearings

Hearing of the House Resources Committee
June 10, 1997

This hearing on H.R. 901 was held before an overflow crowd due to a fly-in by the group Alliance for America. The hearing participants were divided into four panels, each of which provided testimony and answered questions from the committee. To view the hearing agenda and testimony, visit the House Resources Committee website.

Panel I was composed of the following participants:

In their testimony, each of the participants expressed their support for H.R. 901 as a means to provide Congressional intervention into the World Heritage and Biosphere designation processes. Mr. Vogel testified about his concern that most of Minnesota's public lands are under federal control. Ms. James testified that Alaskans are concerned that such international designations will "stifle any reasonable economic opportunities" available to the state. Ms. James' statement goes on to say that "it is incomprehensible to imagine how we can provide economic opportunities for these citizens with the continued meddling and intolerant attitudes of some people in the international environmental community." Mr. Childers' testimony focused on the effects of Yellowstone park's designation as a World Heritage site on the development of the New World Mine, located near Yellowstone park, and its eventual purchase by the U.S. government.

Questions from the committee focused on the extent of local public participation in World Heritage and Biosphere Reserve designations and the extent of international participation in the process. Chairman Young was especially concerned about federal ownership of lands being a "socialist move." Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA) said that the public has a right to know about these designations and a right to provide input on them. As Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) took over as Chair, Rep. John Peterson (R-PA) questioned what positive influence international participants could have in the process when local participants were not involved. Finally, Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA) left open the question of whether the World Heritage agreement is a treaty and, if so, whether it is in conflict with the U.S. Constitution.

Panel II participants were:

Mr. Lindsey, a cattle rancher from southern Arizona, expressed his support for H.R. 901 and testified that he was concerned about the scientific data on which the Endangered Species Act is based. He also asked the Resources committee to include the Ramsar treaty under H.R. 901 because he feels that it affects his private property. According to the Ramsar Convention, the Ramsar treaty is designed to provide a "framework for international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources." Mr. Galvin said that he opposes H.R. 901 because the issue is not one of sovereignty since the United Nations does not have the authority to dictate federal land management issues. He stated that if H.R. 901 passes Congress, he will ask for a presidential veto. Mr. Galvin also testified that the World Heritage Foundation has been a fundamental part of U.S. international environmental policy since it was first put into place under President Nixon. Ms. Beaver testified that she was alarmed at the extent of the Biosphere Reserves project in Arkansas. She also stated that Arkansas citizens have no voice in the agencies and in the State Department. Dr. Rabkin, testifying in support of H.R. 901, stated that outside governments should not have input into the United States' natural resource issues.

Questions again focused on the extent of public participation in the World Heritage and Biosphere Reserves designations. Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-CO) asked Mr. Galvin if property owners around the Mammoth Cave area in Kentucky were involved in the designation of that site as a Biosphere Reserve. Mr. Galvin replied that the locally elected officials were the ones involved in that process. Rep. Linda Smith (R-WA) questioned Mr. Lindsey and Mr. Galvin about the process of notifying the public of site designations. Mr. Lindsey said that he had no official notification of his own property being designated and that no one has analyzed the economic impacts of the designation of his land. Rep. Smith stated that Mr. Lindsey's experience is indicative of how people are being left out of the process and that there needs to be better communication at the local level. Rep. Chenoweth then questioned the legal authority of the World Heritage and Biosphere Reserve designations. Mr. Galvin replied that U.S. participation in the World Heritage Foundation is authorized by Section 401 of the National Historic Preservation Act. He also stated that he would supply the committee with a legal opinion citing the authority for U.S. participation the Biosphere Reserve projects.

The Panel III participant was Mr. Rafe Pomerance, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Development in the U.S. Department of State. Mr. Pomerance testified that the State Department opposes H.R. 901 and instead supports H.R. 1801, which was introduced by Rep. George Brown (D-CA). H.R. 1801 would give a lead agency the authority to designate Biosphere Reserves if the sites meet specified criteria. According to Rep. Brown, the bill "will promote [US] efforts to reduce conflicts between humans and their environment and clarify that the designation of Biosphere Reserve does not infringe upon private property rights or national sovereignty." Mr. Pomerance stated that Biosphere Reserves provide a framework for international scientific cooperation. According to Mr. Pomerance, the project is a network that focuses on sharing information collected through the individual Biosphere Reserves sites. Rep. Chenoweth, the sole remaining member of the committee present after several votes, questioned Mr. Pomerance on the inclusion of the New World mine into Yellowstone's World Heritage designation.

The Panel IV witnesses were:

Mr. Wesson testified in support of H.R. 901 and stated that he believes that the Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage designations violate the Fifth Amendment because they deprive people of their property. He also stated that the United Nations should not be involved in U.S. land rights issues. Mr. Chandler stated that he opposes H.R. 901 because these designations do not affect sovereignty. According to Mr. Chandler, the Biosphere Reserves designation is voluntary and it involves partnerships between federal, state and local agencies. He also stated that the National Parks and Conservation Association does support more public involvement in the designation process. Mr. Araoz testified that the International Council on Monuments and Sites is opposed to H.R. 901. Mr. Howard testified in support of H.R. 901 and stated that individual land owners are not included in Biosphere and World Heritage designations. Finally, Mr. Lamb testified in support of H.R. 901. According to Mr. Lamb, H.R. 901 would provide three functions: it would allow Congress to manage public lands, it would give individuals some recourse when their lands are "taken" by these designations, and it would give Congress authority over these lands instead of the United Nations.

Rep. Chenoweth once again questioned the value and legal validity of the Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage designations. Mr. Chandler responded that the Biosphere Reserves are simply a tool that is being used to better understand the environment. When Rep. Chenoweth questioned Mr. Araoz about individual property owner's concerns about lost land value, Mr. Araoz stated that the private loss must be measured against the gain in public good. Mr. Chandler added that the process of designating these sites and learning from them has been working. Mr. Chandler expressed concern that the Resources Committee was not looking at the success stories. Finally, Rep. Chenoweth wrapped up the hearing by reiterating her contention that the designations have no legal underpinnings.

Markup of H.R. 901
June 25, 1997

Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) opened the markup session for H.R. 901 by declaring that Congress and the American people have been left out of the Biosphere Reserves designation process. He added that local governments are rarely consulted when Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage sites are designated. Rep. Bruce Vento (D-MN) said that he strongly opposes H.R. 901 because it invalidates these designations. He stated that the US has historically been a leader in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which designates the sites. Rep. Vento further justified the programs by saying that the World Heritage designations are included in Title IV of the Historic Preservation Act and that no one has shown that there is any adverse effect from either designation. Finally, Rep. Vento said that if H.R. 901 goes into effect, it would destroy global cooperation and destroy the "moral authority" that the US has created through its national parks system. Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-WY) replied that the designation adversely affected development and use of the New World Mine in her district.

Chairman Young said that he has heard accusations that those supporting the bill are UN-haters and that they believe the UN's black helicopters are attempting to take over US land. He said that this is not the case, rather the H.R. 901 supporters believe in the Constitution and support the process of public involvement in site designations. Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) elaborated on the conspiracy theories surrounding the Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage sites. Satirizing those who support the bill, he said that it is fitting that the markup hearing was being held on the 50th anniversary of the so-called Roswell incident, which has formed the basis of many "convoluted conspiracy theories." Rep. Markey said that the same type of "inexplicably paranoid conspiracy theorists" believe that the UN is taking over the US through its park service. Rep. Markey said that he "was shocked to hear of [Secretary of the Interior] Bruce Babbitt's treachery" when he found out that he and United States UN representative Bill Richardson, a former Representative (from New Mexico no less), had joined forces to gain control of the Resources committee. He concluded by stating that H.R. 901 "is dealing with a problem that does not exist."

Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) offered an amendment to H.R. 901 that would include the Ramsar Convention in the bill. As a result, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) withdrew his support of the bill, saying that amending the bill would bring in a wetlands designation with which he was not familiar. Finally, Rep. Vento once again weighed in against H.R. 901, saying that it "carries a bad idea to a worse conclusion." Despite the efforts of Representatives Vento and Markey, the bill was ordered to be reported by a roll call vote of 26 to nine.

Sources: Environment & Energy Weekly; House Resources Committee; House Science Committee, Democratic Membership; The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands; UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme; Washington Post; World Heritage Information Network

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

Contributed by Stephanie Barrett, AGI Government Affairs Intern and Kasey Shewey White, AGI Government Affairs Program
Posted July 21, 1997; Last updated December 10, 1998

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