National parks are “America’s best idea,” as Wallace Stegner famously said. Rather than having our pristine land owned by the wealthy for private viewing, as was common in Europe, the United States decided that our beautiful landscapes should be public and open to all Americans.
Since Theodore Roosevelt first created a national monument in the Grand Canyon, they have been under assault by corporations. Mining companies eager to extract copper, zinc, and asbestos had eagerly been surveying the land when Roosevelt created the national monument. He came to Arizona to tell the state: “In your own interest and the interest of all the country keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.”
In the latest chapter in this battle, Republicans have launched an all-out assault on the ability to protect new public lands. In House Bill 1459, House Republicans are seeking to remove the President’s power to create new national parks. The bill has become known as the “No New Public Parks” Bill.
The President’s power to create new national monuments is rooted in the grant of authority in the Antiquities Act signed into law by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. With that authority, President Roosevelt was able to protect the Grand Canyon in 1908 and Presidents of both parties have used that power to protect public lands in all 50 states.
However, Republican members of Congress for decades have tried to shut down the creation of new national parks. After Franklin Roosevelt created Jackson Hole National Park, Republicans passed a 1950 law that banned the creation of any new national park in Wyoming without congressional approval. After President Carter used the law in 1978 to protect Alaskan wilderness, Congress passed a law that prevented the President from creating new national monuments in Alaska. Traditionally, Western Republicans have their campaigns financed by industries that want to use public land for profit and have been eager to protect the interests of their donors.
Led by Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, who has spent years fighting for expanding mining rights on public lands in Utah, House Republicans are now trying to make the creation of a new national monument subject to Congressional approval. With home-state Republicans representatives oftentimes opposing a national park because of pressure from industry, this could spell the end of our ability to create new national monuments.
The fact that Republicans are trying to change a law passed over 100 years ago by a Republican President is a reflection of the Republican Party’s ongoing repudiation of its progressive roots. In the era of Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican Party had a claim to the “progressive” label and saw government as a tool for enhancing national greatness. Whether it was trust-busting or preserving public land, Roosevelt worked to pass laws that would further the public interest. By contrast, today’s Republicans see the government as the consummate enemy. Today, Teddy Roosevelt is reviled in a Republican Party that has instead embraced a libertarian worldview.
While it is unlikely that this bill will make it into law as long as Obama is in the White House and Democrats control the Senate, it is an important reminder of the work that the Obama Administration should be doing in preserving public lands. Earlier this month, President Obama created the California National Coastal Monument and set aside 1,655 acres for preservation. The move was an important signal that the Administration is willing to follow up on the President’s commitment in the State of the Union that he would “use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.” After a reluctance to use the power in the Antiquities Act the President has finally begun to push for more expansive national parks.
Contrary to Republican accusations, this is not a presidential power that has been abused. President Clinton’s Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, a strong advocate for using the Antiquities Act to protect public land, worked with local communities to ensure that they had active input in the process of recognizing new national monuments. The abuse that Republicans have always claimed about the Antiquities Act is a hypothetical parade of horrors not based in the reality of how the Act has been used.
Congress is responsible for funding the national parks—and they can shut them down when they feel like it—but it should be for the President to decide when to create them. The President may need to act swiftly to protect important public lands from private encroachment. For over 100 years, Presidents of both parties have used their power to preserve these areas. If today’s Republicans have their way, our Presidents’ hands would be tied—and our public lands would be in private hands.