Misuse of the Antiquities Act?
I recently had an editorial published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune regarding misuse of the Antiquities Act in relation to the San Gabriel Mountains. I’m including the direct link to the article, as well as my unedited version below.
Presidential Misuse of the Antiquities Act?
On October 10th, 2014, President Obama designated 350,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains and River as a national monument. This action was prompted by a request from Representative Judy Chu (D-27) to create the monument by executive order because her legislative bill, HR4858, the “San Gabriel Mountains Recreation Act” had stalled in Congress. Just seven weeks after Rep. Chu announced her request, President Obama signed the monument into effect.
Obama used the controversial Antiquities Act of 1906 to create the monument. This act allows a president to rapidly create a national monument without congressional approval. The designation was proposed only 7 weeks prior to enactment, and was rushed through so quickly that the LA County Board of Supervisors, the Mayor of Los Angeles and cities throughout the San Gabriel Valley did not have an opportunity to state a formal opinion before it was signed into effect. Now that the monument has been enacted, the Dept. of Agriculture in Washington DC is tasked with creating a new management plan which is projected to take at least three years.
The San Gabriel Mountains are a vital natural resource and have been included as part of the Angeles National Forest since 1908. US Forest Service rangers have been protecting and preserving the area for over 100 years. The mountains are not in danger that would require an emergency order of protection, and any isolated issues with trail maintenance, signage, or litter are handled by the USFS or volunteers from local organizations. To create a new bureaucratic overlay with unknown outcomes and expense was unnecessary.
The San Gabriel Mountains are directly adjacent to the greater Los Angeles metro area, and the new monument raises many issues regarding drinking water rights, recreation access and land management that could have benefited from prior discussion with local stakeholders. However, this did not occur because when a national monument is created with the Antiquities Act it can be done without any public input, studies or reviews. It does not require a vote or written legislation.
This is the 13th national monument that the President has signed into effect with the Antiquities Act of 1906. This legislation was created to allow presidents the power to quickly protect objects or structures that are in imminent danger of destruction such as cliff dwellings, pueblos, and other archeological ruins (hence the name “Antiquities Act”). The legislation states that monuments should be created from “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Presidential authority regarding size was supposed to be narrow and limited. Large-scale designations over 5,000 acres, such as the San Gabriel Mountains, were expected to be voted on by Congress to allow for the democratic process to occur.
Many lawmakers have voiced concerns that President Obama is abusing the Antiquities Act by rapidly designating over a dozen national monuments without proper protocol or public input. They believe that unless there is a dire impending threat to the proposed monument, Congress is the appropriate body to implement federal land withdrawal policy. However, despite growing concerns, President Obama recently stated, during the signing ceremony for the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, “And I am not finished. We are looking at additional opportunities to preserve federal lands and waters, and I’ll continue to do so, especially where communities are speaking up.”
While it has been publicized that this monument was many years in the making, nothing could be further from the truth. It was less than 7 weeks from proposal to enactment. Many are confusing it with Rep. Chu’s HR4858, the “National Recreation Area Act,” which was submitted to Congress in June of this year. Currently, HR4858 is being reviewed by the Congressional Natural Resources Committee and does not have enough support to pass due to many concerns regarding the potential impacts it could have on management of the mountains and rivers.
Two months after submitting her bill to Congress, on August 18th, Rep. Chu announced that she had urged President Obama to use his presidential power to create a San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in order to bypass the congressional stalemate. However, a national monument designation created by executive order lacks written management guidelines and is not interchangeable with a bill that is vetted by Congress.
One of the major concerns with this monument designation is that the San Gabriel River has been included within the boundaries. The river provides approximately 30% of the drinking water for the Los Angeles region and several foothill cities rely on it for up to 85% of their water. The river allows many cities to be largely independent from importing expensive water from Northern California.
Unfortunately, we now have no written assurance that the collection of water from the San Gabriel River will not be restricted. Included in the President’s National Monument proclamation is this concerning statement: “The San Gabriels’ rivers not only provide drinking water but are also areas of high ecological significance supporting rare populations of native fish, including the threatened Santa Ana sucker. The San Gabriel River supports rare arroyo chub and Santa Ana speckled dace, a species found only in the Los Angeles Basin.” Similar to how water is being restricted in California’s Central Valley, due to protection of the Delta Smelt, it is now entirely possible that the protection of these indigenous species will take precedence over water collection and recreation access in the San Gabriels.
Often, new national monuments come hand in hand with increased entrance fees, restrictions on the types of recreation allowed, and limitations on access to certain areas. The USDA’s FAQ sheet says that usage and access will occur to “the extent consistent with the proper care and management of the objects protected by the designation and subject to the Secretary’s special uses authorities and other applicable laws.” Although we have received verbal assurances from Rep. Chu that nothing will change with the management of the San Gabriels, the terms will not be placed into writing until the Secretary of Agriculture creates the plans, and even then the directives can be changed by future presidents as they see fit.
Now that the monument has been signed into effect, it is important to turn our attention to the creation of the new management plan. The USDA states that “within three years after the designation, a management plan will be developed with public input. The management plan will be developed and implemented…in an open and transparent process. The Sec. of Agriculture has directed the Forest Service to provide for maximum public involvement in the development of the plan.” If nothing is expected to change, as Rep. Chu states, it begs the question as to why it will take three years to create a plan and why the designation was necessary in the first place.
Regional cities, community organizations and citizens are advised to notify the U.S. Forest Service and their elected officials that they would like to be included in any upcoming planning meetings to ensure their voices are heard. We cannot take it for granted that our needs will be represented without active involvement in the decision making process.
Mayor, City of Glendora