New Mexico national monument designations hinder public lands use

Mar 29, 2013

President Obama last week unilaterally designated five new national monuments, sparking criticism surrounding the timing and cost of his decision.

Obama used his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to create Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico; First State National Monument in Delaware; Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland; Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio; and San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington state.

“These sites honor the pioneering heroes, spectacular landscapes and rich history that have shaped our extraordinary country,” Obama said in a written statement. “By designating these national monuments today, we will ensure they will continue to inspire and be enjoyed by generations of Americans to come.”

In a statement released by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-WA, the chairman criticized the president for “unilaterally ordering the National Park Service to spend scarce dollars” while the nation faces harsh budget cuts as a result of the sequester.

“The Obama administration not only sees the sequester as an opportunity to make automatic spending reductions as painful as possible on the American people, it’s also a good time for the president to dictate under a century-old law that the government spend money it doesn’t have on property it doesn’t even own,” he said in the statement.

“Over one hundred years ago the Antiquities Act was passed to allow a president to act when there was an emergency need to prevent destruction of a precious place—yet President Obama is acting on simple whim as no imminent threat of destruction or harm is posed at any of these five locations,” Hastings added.

In response, the White House said the designations will have a positive, stimulative impact on the local economies and are an important way to commemo rate the country’s history.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the Public Lands Council (PLC) and the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA) also expressed concern over Obama’s decision.

NCBA, PLC and NMCGA said in a press release that four of Obama’s five designations fit within the original intent of the Antiquities Act, but that the organizations oppose the roughly 240,000-acre designation in New Mexico as its expansive size violates the spirit of the law and is likely to serve only as a hindrance to multiple-use of those public lands.

“Livestock producers disagree with the president’s use of the Antiquities Act in designating the sprawling Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico,” said NCBA President Scott George, a cattleman from Cody, WY. “We have long advocated the economic and environmental importance of multiple-use on our public lands in the West. In the past, similar such inappropriately large monument designations have a bad track record of putting in place tight restrictions that harm ranchers, local rural economies, and the proper management of natural resources.”

A 2011 study from Southern Utah University and Utah State University showed the damaging economic impacts of inappropriate monument designations. In a case study of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM), per-capita income in counties located within the monument was shown to be $1,799 below that of comparable counties. Communities in and around GSENM have suffered from a heavy reduction of multiple uses such as livestock grazing. School closures in the area are just one manifestation of the economic distress caused by the designation.

“The Antiquities Act specifically limits the size and scope of designated areas to the ‘smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.’ This roughly 240,000-acre designation in New Mexico clearly falls outside the scope of congressional intent,” said PLC President and Hesperus, CO, rancher Brice Lee. “It is just another example of this administration’s persistent use of administrative actions to attempt to circumvent Congress at every step.”

NMCGA President Rex Wilson, a rancher from Carrizozo, NM, added that his organization and the cattlemen it represents oppose abuses of the Antiquities Act such as the designation of this monument.

“We encourage Congress to respond to this action by amending the Antiquities Act to give local communities a voice and put a stop to such overreach by this administration,” Wilson said.

“NMCGA calls for congressional and state government approval of monuments so that affected citizens may speak through their elected representatives and not simply be forced to accept edicts handed down from Washington.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor