Controversy over Antiquities Act and National Monuments makes little sense

Agua Fria National Monument, Arizona. Courtesy BLM.

Recently, some members of Congress have attempted to create controversy with an anonymous leak of an “Internal Draft — NOT FOR RELEASE” memo within the Department of Interior. The leaked memo contained a list of 14 areas in nine states that might be worthy of being designated as national monuments under the Antiquities Act. The memo clearly stated, “further evaluations should be completed prior to any final decision, including an assessment of public and Congressional support.”

For those of us who follow the political process closely, the resulting controversy is not surprising, but it is nonetheless disappointing.

Some Republicans have criticized Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar for acting in secret and for intending to abuse the Antiquities Act to create National Monuments, even though the Act has long been used by Republicans and Democrats alike, including the Bush Administration, to protect some of our nation’s most spectacular areas.

Secretary Salazar has made it clear that he will seek local consensus if any of the potential monument locations become seriously considered, but the controversy has not yet been calmed.

That’s unfortunate, because along with representing the very best of our nation’s natural and cultural heritage, National Monuments are also valuable wildlife sanctuaries that provide abundant opportunities for scientific study and sustainable tourism.

Historically, National Monument proposals have often involved robust debates. In every case, however, the National Monuments in question became sources of local pride and economic boosts for the communities surrounding them.

In 2006, the Sonoran Institute published a comprehensive study of many lands protected within the National Landscape Conservation System, including several National Monuments. The study concluded that protected public land such as National Monuments are an important quality of life indicator that can enhance the economies for nearby communities. The Wilderness Society conducted an analysis of existing studies and found similar trends for those areas with diverse economies and permanently protected public land.

For over a century, American presidents have used the Antiquities Act to preserve America’s most fruitful and historic lands. First used by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to protect southwestern archeological sites and Native American artifacts from digging and looting, the Antiquities Act grants U.S. presidents the authority to permanently reserve historically or naturally significant federal, public land as National Monuments. Teddy Roosevelt established 18 National Monuments during his presidency, protecting over one million acres of land. Since Roosevelt, only three U.S. Presidents have not made use of the Antiquity Act: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

African Burial Ground National Monument, New York City. Photo by Victorio Loubriel, Courtesy NPS.Designating monuments has been a bipartisan effort. Almost half of the country’s monuments were established by Republican presidents. Soon after the Antiquities Act’s centennial anniversary in 2006, George W. Bush created two very different National Monuments: the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii.

In a time when visitation to our national parks, monuments and other protected places is increasing, maintaining the president’s authority to create new National Monuments should be embraced by all Americans. These areas add value to local communities and economies and leave a legacy for our children. The Wilderness Society will continue to work with our local partners, stakeholders, communities, and federal agencies to ensure our best public lands are protected. We strongly support this administration and all future administrations having the authority to designate National Monuments under the Antiquities Act.

Agua Fria National Monument, Arizona. Courtesy BLM.
African Burial Ground National Monument, New York City. Photo by Victorio Loubriel, Courtesy NPS.