I want to talk about the US Antiquities Act of 1906.* This brainchild of President Theodore Roosevelt, now in effect for one hundred and eleven years, has rendered tremendous service to the American people. Roosevelt was our first president who avowedly set as a national priority protection of significant tracts of public land recognized and treasured for historical, archaeological, scientific, and scenic values. The Act authorized Roosevelt – and his successors to this day – to create by proclamation National Monuments of deserving lands, thus ensuring their protection and enjoyment for and by the people
Sixteen presidents have designated more than 120 national monuments over the 111 year history of the Act. Early on, the U.S. Supreme Court in Cameron v. United States, 252 U.S. 450 (1920), upheld the constitutionality of the Act and proclamations thereunder. However over that 111 year period, fierce controversy has accompanied creation of many, if not most, of these monuments. Indeed the origins and history of the Act reflect a persistent theme: the recurrent argument over local or private control of the lands involved for private or parochial purposes versus the larger argument for their preservation and protection for public use and enjoyment.
With the recent change of administration in Washington, present conflicts seem fair to increase rather than diminish given recent monument proclamations of President *Codified at 16 U.S.C. 431-433, and see annotations for a comprehensive list of our Monuments. Obama. Assuming the din of the tumult may blot out useful historical context, and further assuming it is useful to lay some of that context before readers and commentators, I offer some observations below which should prove helpful.
National Parks and National Monuments are managed for the purpose of protecting the unique resources and values at stake. However national parks are created by Congress with presidential approval, while national monuments are created solely by presidential proclamation. So why two different scenarios if the objectives are the same? While oversimplified, the answers usually lie in the exigencies of time and in pure politics. With small monuments, so-to-speak, there is usually no conflict and presidential proclamation is the easiest and quickest route. However when the acreage is large – tens of thousands of acres, for instance – controversy is generally present and often intense. Congressional debate can extend over months and years, while activities antithetical to protection and preservation seriously, even critically, compromise the area involved. Then exercise of presidential authority pursuant to the Antiquities Act becomes indispensable.
Arguments regarding the merits of various positions of the conflicting parties can and often do last interminably. My purpose here is not to reprise conflicts. Rather, I offer a particular focused historical perspective, useful, I believe, to observer and commentator alike.
Let’s take the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, clearly one of our best recognized and most famous national parks. Surely there can be no quarrel with legislation assuring maximum protection to the Canyon and its dedication as one of our foremost national parks. But such has not been the case. Theodore Roosevelt started the ball rolling in 1908 when he established an 800,000 acre Grand Canyon National Monument by proclamation under the Antiquities Act. The monument was given national park status in 1915. Over the next sixty years, five national monument proclamations were necessary to protect critical portions of the canyon not included in the 1915 park boundaries. In 1975 Congress passed the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act, and the Park now encompasses 1.2 million acres. And even today two large national monuments adjacent to the Park give further protection to lands justly considered integral to protection of the canyon and environs as a whole.
Grand Canyon is not an isolated instance. Such well known parks as Acadia, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Death Valley, Grand Teton, Great Sand Dunes, and Zion National Parks are among the twenty-one national monuments that have become national parks. Indeed Pinnacles National Park in California, established as a national monument via the pen of Teddy Roosevelt in 1908, experienced six subsequent monument proclamations by five different presidents, before the whole became a national park in legislation signed by President Obama in 2013.
So setting aside for the moment the endless arguments of monument merit, highest and best use of public lands, and “abuse” of presidential authority, it is clear the Antiquities Act has been a critical source for protection of some of our most treasured national lands. I urge readers to keep this in mind as arguments surrounding the 1906 Antiquities Act wax and wane; arguments which are rising again as hostile parties attack President Obama’s recent proclamations. Regardless, the historical facts are clear: Many of our most treasured public lands are now protected because the Antiquities Act exists.