Anti-park congressman introduces “No New Parks” bill

Former teacher Rep. Rob Bishop uses revisionist history to justify his attack on Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy

Rep. Rob Bishop | Grand Canyon, Wikimedia Commons

Congressman Rob Bishop is opening a new front in his crusade against America’s parks, monuments, and protected public lands. This time, the Utah congressman is touting his experience as a high school history teacher to rewrite American history and revise the the original intent of our nation’s most important conservation law — the Antiquities Act.

The Antiquities Act, signed into law by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, has been used by 16 presidents of both parties to protect America’s most spectacular cultural and natural areas. The law is responsible for originally protecting nearly half of all national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Arches. It’s under attack on two fronts: first President Trump’s secretive and error-filled review of national monuments, and now Rep. Bishop’s effort to eviscerate the Antiquities Act.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park | Wikimedia Commons

Congressman Bishop has introduced a bill — which will be voted on Wednesday by the House Natural Resources Committee — to dismantle the Antiquities Act, recasting it in what he claims is the ‘original intent’ of the bedrock law. The way Rep. Bishop (a former high school history teacher) explains it, “The [Antiquities] act is not difficult to understand. It is not ambiguous. Any honest reading reveals that it was created to protect ‘landmarks,’ ‘structures,’ and ‘objects’ — not vast swaths of land.”

It’s Congressman Bishop, however, who is providing a dishonest reading and history of the Antiquities Act. From the earliest days of the Act, presidents have used it to protect America’s most at-risk landscapes. In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt invoked the Antiquities Act to protect 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon. The Supreme Court upheld that designation, writing in 1920 that the canyon itself was, as intended by the Antiquities Act, “an object of unusual scientific interest.”

Congressman Bishop’s legislation — HR 3990, the “National Monument Creation and Protection Act” — would place extreme and onerous restrictions on the use of the Antiquities Act, rendering it a toothless and effectively meaningless law. It drastically narrows what can be protected under the Antiquities Act and puts arbitrary caps on the size of national monuments.

The irony of Rep. Bishop’s legislation is that at least 9 of the 18 national monuments protected by Teddy Roosevelt would have been illegal. That includes the very first national monument ever protected — Devils Tower — which is an “object of geologic interest” and not an antiquity as defined by Rep. Bishop. Additionally, President Roosevelt would not have protected the Grand Canyon from mining prospectors (the original designation was too big and didn’t protect narrowly-defined antiquities as Bishop demands), Muir Woods (Rep. Bishop does not consider trees objects of antiquity, no matter how old they are), or Lassen Peaks (volcanoes are not objects worthy of protection in the proposed legislation).

The Center for Western Priorities’ initial analysis of HR 3990 found more than 180 prior uses of the Antiquities Act that would have been impossible or extremely unlikely had Rep. Bishop’s bill been law at the time.*

National monuments protected using the Antiquities Act that would have been impossible or extremely unlikely under HR 3990. Data: Center for Western Priorities

Finally, HR 3990 is completely unnecessary. Congress has full authority over America’s public lands. If Congress decides a president has abused the Antiquities Act, it has the power to erase or modify a national monument designation at any time. It is with good reason that Congress has rarely exercised that power, opting dozens of times instead to give those monuments national park status. This includes four of the “Mighty Five” national parks that drive more than $1 billion in economic activity in Congressman Bishop’s home state of Utah: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Zion national parks were all originally protected using the Antiquities Act.

Congressman Bishop’s attack on the Antiquities Act is not only unprecedented — it’s not even a serious piece of legislation. It’s nothing less than a manifesto put forward by the most anti-park members of Congress in American history.

*Under HR 3990, Antiquities Act designations of more than 85,000 acres would not be allowed at all. Designations of 10,000–85,000 acres would face onerous hurdles, including approval of local county commissions, state legislatures, and governors, making them extremely unlikely. The bill would also significantly narrow the definition of places eligible for protection. We note designations of less than 10,000 acres that would not have been allowed.