The 113th Congress is sworn in and both legislation and roadmaps of legislative initiatives have started rolling forward. While both the talk and much of the media networks’ air time surround gun control, immigration, the debt ceiling and other large initiatives, environmental focus has not been lost in all quarters. And no, I’m not talking about potential action on climate change, at least not today. Instead, I turn your attention to the newly developed House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation and its chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop from Utah.

Chimney Rock in the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado
President Obama designated Chimney Rock in the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado as a national monument on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. The area holds great spiritual and historical significance for many tribes, as it was an ancestral home to the Pueblo people. Credit: USDA

The subcommittee website states that it is “responsible for all matters related to the National Park System, U.S. forests, public lands and national monuments.” This responsibility includes “ensuring are available for recreational opportunities and economic development.” As this new subcommittee begins its work laying out the Republican majority’s legislative agenda, it is important to discuss an early focus: review of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Antiquities Act.

Subcommittee Chairman Bishop’s desire to spotlight these two laws is not unduly surprising, as both laws have faced extensive criticism from Republicans in the past. NEPA especially has been pushed and pulled since President Nixon signed it into law on January 1, 1970. In a previous post, I outlined the basics of NEPA, including environmental assessments and environmental impact statements, as well as the exclusion of specific activities from these requirements (cleverly titled categorical exclusions). There are ways around NEPA, but it tends to require an administration’s participation. Remember the stimulus from the beginning of President Obama’s first term? The administration granted more than 179,000 categorical exclusions to specific stimulus-funded projects, with the express purpose of streamlining the approval process.

For developers working on federal lands or using federal money, NEPA can be a nightmare of delay, with potentially extensive and expensive environmental studies to be completed before the project ever breaks ground. But for environmental and community groups, it is a law that forces those same developers to stop and examine the potential environmental impacts of a project. While the “stop and examine” can sometimes turn into litigation, NEPA regulations are intended to provide an honest and thorough assessment of a project.

Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia
Fort Monroe in Virginia was designated as a national monument by President Obama on November 1, 2011. The fort, completed in 1834 and named after President Monroe, was a key and symbolic refuge for former slaves during the Civil War. Credit: dbking/Flickr

While a push to reform NEPA may receive more attention, the Antiquities Act is potentially the bigger fight. Currently, under this 1906 law, a president may designate, on federally-controlled lands, any “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest … to be national monuments.” These designations do not require congressional approval, lying instead within the executive power of a president. Since 1906, 16 presidents (eight from each party) have declared 132 national monuments using the Antiquities Act, encompassing more than 70 million acres of land. These monuments have included the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty and Devils Tower. The recently introduced H.R. 250, however, would amend the Antiquities Act to require congressional approval for any national monument designation. Rep. Bishop has stated that one of his top goals is to reform the Antiquities Act, and such a bill would effectively remove the original intent of the law.

Because both NEPA and the Antiquities Act play a large role in the conservation of our nation’s national forests, it is important that we keep our eyes focused on potential legislative changes to these protective laws.