WASHINGTON, D.C., FEBRUARY 12—Secretary of Interior Gale Norton was backpedaling this morning after The Washington Post reported she had decided not to overturn any of Bill Clinton’s last-minute national monument designations. In the waning hours of his administration, Clinton established 19 new national monuments, totaling more than 5 million acres, and expanded three others. These designations could protect millions of acres of federal land from the mining or oil and gas development President George W. Bush has advocated.
Norton told the Post the Bush administration might try to adjust the boundaries of the monuments and change rules that stipulate what kind and how much commercial development can go on within their boundaries. “I certainly disapprove of the process by which those monuments were generally created … (but) I have not yet heard any calls to repeal any of the monument designations,” Norton said in the Post interview.
After the Post article appeared, Norton seemed to switch her line. The Denver Post reported this morning that a Norton spokesman claimed the Washington Post story went too far, and that Norton had not yet made any decision on Clinton’s monuments. “The official word at this point is that there is discomfort with the way Clinton made the designations, but nothing had been done about it at this point,” Cliff May, a Norton spokesman, told the Denver paper.
This is a game of smoke and mirrors. Just because the president designates an area a national monument doesn’t necessarily stop or prevent future commercial activity within it. After the president makes the proclamation, an elaborate land-use study must be undertaken, resulting in a detailed list of restrictions. In the case of Utah’s Grand Escalante Staircase, which Clinton designated a national monument just before the 1996 election, the land-use plan wasn’t completed for three years, and ended allowing existing coal mining and oil and gas development to continue. Conoco, which holds leases there, sought and was given permission to drill oil and gas wells.
Moreover, Congress, not the president, has final say over the disposition of federal lands. The Utah delegation is coming out hard against limiting access to the Staircase. House Resources Committee chairman James Hansen, a Republican, could affect the fate of the protected acres in one of several ways. Hansen could lobby inside the administration for lax rules as the land-use plans are being prepared. Or he could hold hearings in his committee, then put forward legislation aimed at changing one or another of the monument’s status.
He could also try to put a rider on the Interior Department’s appropriations bill, cutting off funding for monuments Clinton created. But this is a tricky game. Last June, 38 Republicans joined the Democrats to beat down a Hansen rider, 234-137.
Republicans on the Hill are laying the groundwork to curb the power of future presidents to protect vast tracts. Mike Simpson, a Republican congressman from Idaho, wants to sponsor legislation that would limit the life of a presidentially proclaimed monument to two years, unless Congress specifically approves the designation.