Presidential Legacies: The Antiquities Act and the Pacific

Johnston Atoll, one of several areas protected under President Bush's use of the Antiquities Act. Courtesy EPA.

The outgoing president has been up to some last minute attacks on the environment. That is no surprise to some. However, President Bush’s use of the Antiquities Act to protect a large area of the western Pacific Ocean as a National Monument may also be a surprise to some, and it should be commended. He continues a presidential tradition of using the Act to protect some of the nation’s most spectacular natural and cultural resources. In fact, only three presidents since the passage of the Act in 1906 — Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush — did not use their authority under the Act to preserve the public estate for the next generation.

The Antiquities Act of 1906, officially An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities was passed by the Congress and signed into law by Teddy Roosevelt giving the authority to restrict the use of particular federal, public land by executive order. This allows the president to create a National Monument without having to pass a law through Congress. (The President cannot designate new Wilderness areas on our public lands for instance, as that right is reserved specifically for Congress under the Wilderness Act of 1964.)

So what’s next? President-elect Obama can begin thinking about his conservation legacy right away by exploring where the next great new National Monument will be and by using his executive power under the Antiquities Act to protect some of the great American West. The 265 million acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management would be a good place to start. Roughly 26 million acres of these lands are within BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System, but many more deserve protection.

photo: Arial of Johnston Atoll, one of several areas protected under President Bush's use of the Antiquities Act. Courtesy EPA.

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