Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act authorized all future presidents to protect historic landmarks or objects of “scientific interest” on public lands as national monuments. The bill grew out of a movement to preserve deteriorating archaeological resources, some of which had become targets of vandalism, but was later used to great effect for outstanding natural treasures. Along with a suite of related legislation passed between the 1880s and 1916, it helped codify an idea we now consider uniquely American: some places are so extraordinary that they should be preserved for the enjoyment of the people.
Since President Roosevelt exercised the Antiquities Act for the first time--to protect Wyoming’s Devils Tower, an igneous rock formation, in September of 1906--it has been used on a bipartisan basis by 16 presidents to set aside monuments as varied as the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty. In May 2014, President Barack Obama used it to protect New Mexico’s Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, riding a wave of local support. Some of the monuments designated under the Act have since gained additional protections as national parks, national wildlife refuges or other public lands—wilderness has even been designated in areas originally protected as national monuments--but the Antiquities Act got the ball rolling.
While many lawmakers have voiced their support for the president’s authority to protect national monuments, the Antiquities Act still faces challenges. Meanwhile, Congress’ long conservation slump makes the law more important than ever.