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The Antiquities Act and the Great Spaces of Our Nation

Just a few short, awful years ago in 2017 when Donald Trump was busy ensuring his place as the most anti-environmental president in U.S. history, he ordered his Interior Department to appease resource extractors and the Bundy family fringe of the GOP by ordering a review of the status of 27 National Monuments established in the U.S. since 1996. Judging from his rationale for the monuments “review,” it was clear the president had no idea how government works, or how National Parks, National Monuments, or Wilderness areas are established. With Trump, nothing is sacred.

Most National Monuments are the result of lengthy preservation campaigns by individuals and citizens groups, and are managed for varying levels of conservation by the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) once they are established. Generally the agency already managing the area is charged with management of the monument once it’s established. While an Act of Congress can establish a National Monument in the same manner as a National Park, the Antiquities Act, signed into law 115 years ago this week in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, gives the president the ability to immediately designate an area of federal land as a National Monument with the stroke of a pen.

One of the most powerful pieces of policy-making available to the President of the United States, the Antiquities Act enables the president to preserve any area of federal land that may be subject to an imminent ecological threat. Similarly, the Antiquities Act gives the president the power to designate an area of importance as a National Monument if Congress is moving too slowly to preserve it with National Park or Wilderness legislation – or if Congress shows little interest in advancing a conservation option at all.

Among the dozens of iconic locales that President Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to preserve, none is more famous than the Grand Canyon – as much a symbol of the American west as the bald eagle. Roosevelt established the Grand Canyon as a National Monument in 1908, and it became a National Park by an Act of Congress 11 years later in 1919. In the catalogue of great American places, special locales, and preserved ecosystems, it’s hard to imagine an American west without the Grand Canyon preserved.

Theodore Roosevelt also established Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming in 1906, and what is now Olympic National Park in Washington as Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909. He established Pinnacles National Monument in Monterey County in 1908, which became a National Park 105 years later in 2013.

Two of California’s most iconic and frequently visited National Parks, Death Valley and Joshua Tree, were established as National Monuments by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and 1936, respectively. Both became National Parks in 1994 with the passage of the California Desert Protection Act, which also established Mojave National Preserve.

The issue of the Antiquities Act, and the sanctity of American conservation generally, hit a flash point in April 2017 when Trump made the unprecedented move of ordering the Interior Department to devise a plan to shrink the boundaries of the just-established Bear Ears National Monument in Utah by over two-thirds. The area had just been declared a National Monument by President Obama the previous December, one of several large-scale uses of the Antiquities Act during his final months in office.

Located along the border of Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Bear Ears also surrounds Natural Bridges National Monument, and had already been the subject of a lengthy, grassroots effort to protect its habitat and ecosystems, along with areas within the monument sacred to Indigenous communities, including the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Uintah, Ouray, and Pueblo. Private property holdings in the monument had not been affected by the designation.

Nevertheless, Trump referred to Bear Ears as a “land grab,” parroting absurd charges long made by anti-conservation extremists. Since 1848, when much of what is today Utah was purchased from Mexico as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Bears Ears has been managed in some form by the federal government. As a National Monument, the area was to be appropriately managed for conservation of native habitats – not resource extraction.

Declaring Bear Ears to be a land grab implied the area was either sitting around with no owner or managing agency, or had been “seized” from private property holders as part of the National Monument designation. Both scenarios are not only false, but ridiculous. The only “land grab” that occurred at Bears Ears was in 1864 when the native Navajos of the Four Corners region were forced to leave their lands in a campaign of deportation and ethnic cleansing by the federal government – that was actual, not imagined, tyranny.

Those who make the modern land grab charge, as Trump and the modern GOP do, simply intend to incite fools like Ammon Bundy, who carried out an armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in early 2016. Citing the “tyranny” of federal land control, the Bundy family and its followers were apparently unaware that the Malheur had been a National Wildlife Refuge since it was established way back in 1908 by – you guessed it, President Theodore Roosevelt. The refuge also serves as a center of jobs and economic activity. Some tyranny.

Land designated as a National Monument is already on federal land. There is no modern practice of seizing land or taking land from private property holders for federal parks or monuments, unlike the kind of eminent domain laws used by pipeline companies, or even by Trump when he was building money-losing edifices to himself disguised as hotels and casinos.

In fact, both Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona had the sanctity of their boundaries trampled on by the Trump administration’s application of federal eminent domain laws in order to build his pointless, racist Border Wall. The only thing that changes with a National Monument designation is management of the area, and the understanding the monument will be managed for long-term conservation, not short-term gain.

Like National Parks, National Battlefields, and National Historic Places, National Monuments preserve the best of America’s natural and cultural heritage, including the wide-open, fault-driven spaces of Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo County, some of oldest Giant Sequoia groves in the southern Sierra Nevada, and the desert expanses and fragile ecosystems of Mojave Trails National Monument.

Monuments are managed for all Americans to enjoy and revel in, not for a few to profit from at the expense of habitat and our environment. Monuments, parks, and Wilderness also serve as economic engines for nearby communities, and offer Americans room to roam, hike, camp, explore, and decompress. They are not placeholders, and until Trump their integrity and sanctity had always been recognized from one administration to the next.

The future of representative democracy in our nation remains uncertain following the January 6th insurrection (another first for the Trump administration). There is no guarantee Democrats will prevail nationally in 2022 or 2024, meaning our elections have come down to a choice between those who believe in expansive, representative democracy, and an authoritarian party that seeks to undo the American social contract by making it more difficult for citizens to vote – and by installing “officials” intent on making that seditious goal a reality.

This is a dilemma our nation has never faced, not even during the Civil War, and it puts the future of American conservation, the preservation of our special places, and the use of such effective executive tools as the Antiquities Act in jeopardy as well. It’s up to us to elect candidates who not only pledge to serve as guardians of the great corners of our nation in the manner of Theodore Roosevelt, but who make it a key, critical priority.

As Roosevelt said in a speech in 1908, “The time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, and denuding the fields.”