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Wednesday, March 26, 2014
The Santa Fe New Mexican 

For more than 100 years, Republican and Democratic presidents alike have used their authority under the Antiquities Act to preserve the greatest of America’s iconic lands and sites. Established by that superb conservationist, Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, the act has helped preserve such essential parts of the United States as the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty — and more recently in Northern New Mexico, the Río Grande del Norte Monument.

It is ironic, then, that as New Mexico celebrates the one-year anniversary of the Río Grande del Norte Monument’s establishment, some in Congress want to strip away the power of presidents to preserve. That bill, HR 1459, narrowly passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday. With Democrats in power in the Senate, it will go nowhere — but it’s smart to pay attention.

Because Republican control of the Senate is possible after the mid-terms — and perhaps a Republican president in 2016 — bills such as this give us clues about the future. Should the GOP control both the legislative and administrative branches of government, it is likely that their beliefs about preservation (or exploitation) of wilderness and cultural properties will take precedence. The bill, titled “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation (EPIC) of National Monuments Act,” would limit presidents to just one new monument per four-year term, and introduce a number of regulatory roadblocks to make preservation difficult, if not impossible. It was introduced by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah; New Mexico’s Rep. Ben Ray Luján spoke passionately against the bill.

After all, one reason President Barack Obama has used the Antiquities Act is that Congress is doing little to protect wilderness and other properties. Except for one wilderness bill that became law earlier this month, Congress had not protected any new public lands since 2009. That’s the longest gap since World War II. Presidential action, though, continues to set aside lands in New Mexico — and we trust that President Obama soon will sign an order to establish the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Southern New Mexico as well. The Antiquities Act matters to New Mexico.

The designation of the Río Grande del Norte Monument, as predicted, has resulted in a 40 percent increase in visitation and significant economic activity in and around Taos, say its supporters. Taos lodgers’ tax revenue increased by 21 percent in the second half of 2013, compared to that same period in 2012. That added up to an increase of nearly $100,000. Gross receipts revenues in Taos County increased 8.3 percent, or $3.7 million, for businesses in the food services and accommodations sector over that same period. Some of this can be attributed to the new monument.

The Republican approach — to stop protection of cultural properties and wilderness — is wrong for the country.

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