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House Moves to Dismantle Antiquities Act, Threatening Marine Protection

The House Natural Resources Committee has voted on a new bill that would strip the Antiquities Act, a law that has protected public lands and waters in large monuments.

The legislation HR 3990, introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop (R.Utah), has been fast tracked through a House Committee, failing to give members opportunity to discuss and debate it before the committee vote.

Established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect our national wilderness and cultural treasures, the Antiquities Act has been used  to protect such places as the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and the Muir Woods National Monument.  The Act has been used 157 times by 16 Presidents from both the republican and democratic parties equally to protect national areas from special interests and is instrumental in the formation of our National Parks System.

Antiquities Act reform has been a key priority for many conservatives, interest groups and members of industry who protested the establishment of areas such as the Utah’s Bears Ears (Obama), Grand Staircase-Escalante (Clinton) and the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument (Bush). On January 6, 2009, President George W. Bush established the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act. These monuments are part of the US Fish and Wildlife Refuge system and protect some of the healthiest reefs, fish and nesting habitat in American waters. Included were the Rose Atoll NMM off Samoa and the Marianas Trench, the deepest place in the ocean.

The proposed Congressional Bill would maintain the president’s power to declare national monuments, but any monument larger than 640 acres would be required to go through a federal environmental review process. The legislation would apply increasingly strict rules to new proposed monuments and require county and state governments to sign off on the monument designation before it takes effect.   Utah and Alaska Governors have been vocal critics of monuments in their states and both have proposed independent legislation to strip monument status.

Trump Orders Zinke to Review Large Monuments

Concurrently, the President has acted to dismantle monuments established under three previous presidents, including monumental marine protections established under Republican President GW Bush.

A memo leaked in September revealed that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, recommended that the president of the United States reduce the size of four national monuments and allow changes to management priorities to possibly pursue oil and gas exploration, mining, timber harvesting, and commercial fishing in at least 10 of our national monuments.  The memo mentions 10 Monuments the Department of the Interior could shrink or exploit as part of these recommendations.  The final document has been released recommending reduction and change of management for the PRI and Rose Atoll. 

The PRI monument incorporated approximately 86,888 square miles within its boundaries, which extend 50 nautical miles from the mean low water lines of HowlandBaker, and Jarvis Islands; JohnstonWake, and Palmyra Atolls; and Kingman Reef (maps) under President Bush. On September 25, 2014, the Obama Administration expanded the monument to 490,300 square miles, the world’s largest marine protected areas next to the Papahanumokuakea and now, as of December 1, 2017 the Ross Sea off Antarctica. Located in the northwest Hawaiian Islands, the Papahanaumokuakea was the first US Marine National Monument and is also under scrutiny by the Secretary of Interior. The Secretary’s final recommendations to the president now released recommend reducing the protected area of the Pacific Remote Islands, Rose Atoll and the Atlantic Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monuments.

Located in the Central Pacific Ocean, these seven islands and atolls host a large abundance and diversity of marine and terrestrial life, including corals, fish, marine mammals, birds, insects and native plants not found anywhere else. Marine reserves do not allow fishing are some of the most effective tools for improving ocean ecosystems and protecting threatened fish species and can increase the number, size and diversity of fish and other marine animals in regions outside the reserve. Maintaining marine protections at the Pacific Remote Islands and the Papahanumokuakea can help ensure robust, sustainable marine wildlife populations that not only benefit the monument waters, but the waters and Pacific peoples of the surrounding region. 

These changes have the potential to become the the largest scaleback of protected public lands and oceans in American history.