American Land Sovereignty Protection Act

Donald Edwin Young

[Report to the 106th Congress, U.S. House of Representatives, May 1999]

May 13, 1999- Committed to the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union and ordered to be printed Mr. YOUNG of Alaska, from the Committee on Resources, submitted the following REPORT together with DISSENTING VIEWS [To accompany H.R. 883] [Including cost estimate of the Congressional Budget Office]

The Committee on Resources, to whom was referred the bill (H.R. 883) to preserve the sovereignty of the United States over public lands and acquired lands owned by the United States, and to preserve State sovereignty and private property rights in non-Federal lands surrounding those public lands and acquired lands, having considered the same, report favorably thereon without amendment and recommend that the bill do pass.


H.R. 883 will restore the Constitutional role of Congress in managing lands belonging to the United States, preserve the sovereignty of the United States over these lands, and protect State sovereignty and private property rights in non-federal lands adjacent to federal lands.


The American Land Sovereignty Protection Act (H.R. 883) asserts the Constitutional power of Congress over management and use of lands belonging to the United States. Under Article IV, section 3 of the United States Constitution, the power to make all needful rules and regulations governing lands belonging to the United States is vested in Congress. Yet over the last 25 years, an increasing expanse of our nation's public lands have been included in various international land use programs, most notably United Nations Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites, with virtually no Congressional oversight or approval. The international agreement covering World Heritage Sites, for example, largely leaves Congress out of the nomination process.

United Nations World Heritage Sites, Ramsar Sites and Biosphere Reserves are under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World Heritage Sites and Ramsar Sites are recognized by UNESCO under `The Convention Concerning Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage' (World Heritage Convention) and `The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat' (Ramsar Convention), respectively. Biosphere Reserves are part of the U.S. Man and Biosphere Program which operates in conjunction with a worldwide program under UNESCO. The U.S. Man and Biosphere Program is not authorized by Congress and has no legislative direction. Over 68 percent of the land in our national parks, preserves and monuments have been designated as United Nations World Heritage Sites, Biosphere Reserves or both. Biosphere Reserves alone cover an area about the size of Colorado, our eighth largest state. There are now 47 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, 20 World Heritage Sites and 16 Ramsar Sites in the United States.

In becoming a party to these international land use agreements through Executive Branch action, the United States may be indirectly agreeing to terms of international treaties, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which the United States is not a party or which the United States Senate has refused to ratify. For example, The Seville Strategy for Biosphere Reserves recommends that participating countries `integrate biosphere reserves in strategies for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, in plans for protected areas, and in the national biodiversity strategies and action plans provided for in Article 6 of the Convention on Biological Diversity.' Furthermore, the Strategic Plan for the U.S. Biosphere Reserve Program published in 1994 by the U.S. State Department states that a goal of the U.S. Biosphere Reserve Program is to `create a national network of biosphere reserves that represents the biogeographical diversity of the United States and fulfills the internationally established roles and functions of biosphere reserves.'

Also disturbing is that designation of Biospheres and World Heritage Sites rarely involve consulting the public and local governments. At the five hearings held on the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act since the 104th Congress, state and local elected officials as well as grassroots citizen activists from Alaska, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, New Mexico and New York testified that no one consulted with the public or local governments when international land designations were made in their states. The domestic designation process for World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves is so controversial that the Alaska, Colorado and Montana state legislatures have passed resolutions in support of the American Land Sovereignty Protection Act. In addition, the Kentucky State Senate recently passed a resolution opposing creation of any biosphere reserves within Kentucky and supporting the concepts embodied in this legislation.

In fact, UNESCO policy apparently discourages an open nomination process for World Heritage Sites. The Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention state:

In all cases, as to maintain the objectivity of the evaluation process and to avoid possible embarrassment to those concerned, State [national] parties should refrain from giving undue publicity to the fact that a property has been nominated * * * pending the final decision of the Committee of the nomination in question. Participation of the local people in the nomination process is essential to make them feel a shared responsibility with the State party in the maintenance of not prejudice future decision-making by the committee.

By allowing these international land use designations, the United States promises to protect designated areas and regulate surrounding lands if necessary to protect the designated site. Honoring these international agreements could force the federal government to prohibit or limit some uses of private lands inside or outside the designated reserve unless our country wants to break a pledge to other nations. At a minimum, this puts U.S. land policy-makers in an awkward position.

Federal regulatory actions could cause a significant adverse impact on the value of private property and on the local and regional economy. The involvement of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) in the National Environmental Policy Act review process for the New World Mine Project near Yellowstone National Park, a World Heritage Site, exemplifies this problem. The New World mine project is outside of the boundary of Yellowstone National Park and is not included in the World Heritage Site. In fact, nearly all of the proposed mine site is located on private property, and U.S. law (16 U.S.C. 470a-1(c)) prohibits including any non-federal property within a U.S. World Heritage Site without the consent of the owner.

The fact that the proposed project was not a part of the Yellowstone World Heritage Site did not prevent the WHC from holding a `hearing' on the project. Creation of a buffer zone, possibly ten times as large as the Park, was suggested by at least one member of the WHC. However, by excluding the federal lands on which a small part of the New World Mine Project lies from an adjoining wilderness area, Congress had already determined not to create such a buffer zone and to make these lands available for multiple uses, including mining.

It is clear from this example, that at best, World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve designations give the international community an open invitation to interfere in U.S. domestic land use decisions. More seriously, these international agreements potentially have several significant adverse effects on the American system of government. Domestic land use policy-making authority is further centralized at the federal/Executive Branch level, and the role that ordinary citizens have in the making of this policy through their elected representatives is diminished. The Executive Branch may also invoke these international agreements in an attempt to administratively achieve an action within the jurisdiction of Congress, but without consulting Congress. The current framework for implementing the World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve programs has eaten away at the power and sovereignty of the Congress to exercise its constitutional power to make the laws that govern U.S.-owned land.

Perhaps the most serious problem with international agreements, such as the World Heritage Convention, is that the international bodies which administer them do not represent the American people and cannot be held accountable by them. In a May 5, 1999, letter to Congressman Bruce Vento, former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick says it best:

In U.N. organizations, there is no accountability. U.N. bureaucrats are far removed from the American voters. Many of the States Parties in the World Heritage Treaty are not democracies. Some come from countries that do not allow the ownership of private property. The World Heritage and Man and the Biosphere committees make decisions affecting the land and lives of Americans. Some of these decisions are made by representatives chosen by governments not based on democratic representation, certainly not on the representation of Americans. What recourse does an American voter have when U.N. bureaucrats from Cuba or Iraq or Libya (all of which are parties to this Treaty) have made a decision that unjustly damages his or her property rights that lie near a national park?


Committee Oversight Finding and Recommendations

With respect to the requirements of clause 2(l)(3) of rule XI of the Rules of the House of Representatives, and clause 2(b)(1) of rule X of the Rules of the House of Representatives, the Committee on Resources' oversight findings and recommendations are reflected in the body of this report.


Article I, section 8 and Article IV, section 3 of the Constitution of the United States grant Congress the authority to enact H.R. 883. COMPLIANCE WITH HOUSE RULE XI [this section not reproduced] H.R. 883 would prohibit any federal official from nominating or designating any federal land for a special or restricted use under any international agreement unless specifically authorized by law, with certain exceptions. Moreover, the bill would make ineffective the designation of any area in the United States under such agreements unless the designation is specifically authorized either by written permission from the landowner (for private property), or by state or local law (for property owned by such governments). Designations of federal land would be ineffective as well, unless authorized by federal legislation enacted after enactment of H.R. 883 but before December 31, 2000. These provisions would affect designations of land under programs such as the World Heritage List and the Man and Biosphere Program of the United Nations. H.R. 883 would require the Secretaries of State and the Interior to submit annual reports to the Congress on each site designated under these programs. In addition, before nominating any federal property for the World Heritage List, the Secretary of the Interior would have to report to the Congress on the area's natural resources and the effects that the listing would have on existing or future uses of the site or other lands within a 10-mile range.

CBO estimates that the Department of State and the Department of the Interior (DOI) would incur minor expenses to collect information (such as budget and staffing data by site) and to submit annual reports to the Congress. DOI also might incur some costs (for data gathering and reporting) if it chooses to nominate any sites for the World Heritage List, but we do not expect these to be significant. The bill would have no impact on other federal agencies. The CBO staff contact is Deborah Reis. This estimate was approved by Robert A. Sunshine, Deputy Assistant Director for Budget Analysis.