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New Monuments, Old Debates

President Obama signs an Executive Order creating three new National Monuments.
President Obama signs an Executive Order creating three new National Monuments. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

On July 10, 2015, President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate three new National Monuments – Berryessa Snow Mountain in California, Waco Mammoth in Texas, and Basin and Range in Nevada. With these new designations, the President will have used the Antiquities Act to establish or expand 19 national monuments. First used by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the Antiquities Act remains one of the most important – and most controversial – tools by which the Executive Branch can take immediate action on pressing conservation and preservation priorities.

Between 1864 (the creation of Yosemite) and 1906, the number of National Parks in the United States grew at what might fairly be called a snail’s pace (1). Over roughly half-a-century, Congress only saw fit to designate a handful of sites, leaving some of the country’s most iconic locations open to either natural resource or commercial development.

At the same time that the National Park idea languished, the National Forest System (then called Forest Reserves) grew rapidly. Indeed, in a little less than two decades time, 1891 to 1907, the federal government created more than 150 new forest reserves, covering some 150 million acres of land. A variety of factors led to the divergence in the fates of forests and parks, but one of the most significant proved to be the legal authorities governing each system. Until 1907 (when Congress repealed the authority), Forest Reserves could be created by Presidential action, a power granted to the Executive by the 1891 General Revision Act (sometimes referred to as the Forest Reserves Act after the specific amendment granting the Presidential authority). This opened the door to a slew of designations, supported by both a growing cadre of professional foresters, led by Gifford Pinchot, as well as much of the general public, who had grown increasingly concerned over the threat of a “timber famine” in the forests of the Northeast and Upper Midwest.

In contrast, there was no similar authority available to establish park units from the public domain or from donated land. Instead, Congress had to pass a bill to create a new park, a far more arduous process. This all changed in 1906 during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Concerned about the ongoing and largely unchecked destruction of sites associated with the histories and cultures of Indigenous peoples (including the theft and sale of ceremonial items and other materials to all manner of “collectors” both in the U.S. and abroad), Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which gave the President the ability to quickly set aside lands with significant natural, cultural or scientific features. Significantly, however, Indigenous peoples themselves were not consulted on the majority of the monument designations that flowed from the Act’s passage.

Almost immediately after the bill became law, Roosevelt took action. Rather than focus solely on the protection of archaeological sites, as perhaps some members of Congress had assumed he might, the President used his new authority to designate a diverse array of public lands as National Monuments, including the Grand Canyon in 1908.

In the early years, depending on prior management, monuments were allocated to a variety of federal agencies, including the Forest Service (within the Dept. of Agriculture), the Department of the Interior or the War Department. In 1916, with the creation of the National Park Service, monuments under Interior became part of the NPS portfolio. Later, in 1933, during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the federal government would transfer management of the USFS monuments to NPS, a decision that caused consternation within the Forest Service. The War Department monuments would also come under NPS jurisdiction during this same period. (2)

For almost its entire history, the Antiquities Act has generated controversy, though it is important to note that presidents (16 in total) from both parties have used their authority to create new monuments. Consequently, there have been ongoing calls, including during the current session of Congress, to either repeal or significantly limit the Act. For example, Senate Bill 228, the National Monument Designation Transparency and Accountability Act (introduced by Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho) would require not only Congressional approval for new National Monuments, but also passage of a supportive bill by the legislatures of affected states. Not surprisingly, the recent designations by President Obama, have only added to debate over the Act’s future.

A few other notable controversies connected to the Antiquities Act:

In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt designated the Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming (roughly 220,000 acres), which included lands purchased by Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Many local officials opposed the monument’s creation and Roosevelt eventually had to veto a bill passed by Congress to disestablish the monument. In 1950, President Harry Truman signed a bill merging most of Jackson Hole National Monument with Grand Teton National Park and the monument itself ceased to exist (it has been common over time for monuments to eventually be re-classified as National Parks). However, bowing to continued local opposition, the 1950 bill also modified the Antiquities Act, limiting presidential power to proclaim National Monuments in Wyoming.

In 1969, the town of Boulder, UT passed a resolution changing its name to “Johnson’s Folly” in protest over the decision of President Lyndon Johnson to expand both Arches and Capitol Reef National Monuments, both of which were later declared National Parks. The town would later change its name back to Boulder.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, despite assurances his administration would take no such action. A public ceremony to mark the monument’s creation was ultimately held in Arizona at the Grand Canyon owing to the growing controversy, and, while the act may have helped Clinton’s national re-election hopes, he lost Utah by a whopping 21 % points to the Republican nominee Bob Dole.

(1) The author dates the first national park to Yosemite in 1864 (despite the term “National Park” not being used, rather than Yellowstone in 1872, which is also a commonly used date.

(2) For a detailed overview of the creation, abolition and expansion of monuments connected to the NPS, see this informative article from the National Parks Traveler.