Creating National Monuments: Learn about the special tradition behind these grand legacies

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Courtesy BLM.

National Monuments and the Antiquities Act have been in the news quite a bit lately because of a manufactured controversy that misrepresents a leaked memo to suggest incorrectly that the Obama Administration has imminent plans to use the Antiquities Act to create a slew new National Monuments.

With misinformation running rampant, we thought this might be a perfect time to present background about the Antiquities Act and the pivotal role it has played in protecting many of this country’s best-loved protected areas.

Since its passage by Congress in 1906, the Antiquities Act has been a critically important tool for the preservation of our public lands – lands that are managed by our government but belong to all Americans. The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to grant national monument status to areas possessing significant historical and/or scientific values. This presidential tool has long been used in a bipartisan manner to create a diverse array of national monuments, ranging from the small (one acre) and historic Fort Matanzas in Florida to the large (350,000 square mile) marine national monuments in the Pacific established by President George W. Bush.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 declares:

“The President of the United States is authorized in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be National Monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

Theodore Roosevelt, the first president to issue a proclamation designating a national monument, protected more than one million acres by designating 18 monuments in nine states. President Carter, on December 1, 1978, declared 56 million acres spread over 14 areas in Alaska as national monuments.

Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument, Arizona. Courtesy BLM.More than 25 percent of the presidentially created monuments exceed 50,000 acres, including many that ultimately became national parks, such as Grand Canyon, Glacier Bay, Bryce Canyon, Death Valley, Olympic, and Joshua Tree.

Timely action under the Antiquities Act protected these important places until Congress could act to designate them as parks. These lands are also important components of the National Landscape Conservation System.

The Antiquities Act by the Numbers

  • Between 1906 and January 2009, 15 presidents used the Antiquities Act to designate 124 national monuments. The only three presidents who did not use the Act were Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
  • Congress has re-designated 30 national monuments as national parks, most recently in 2000 (the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado). In fact, nearly a quarter of the monuments currently in our National Park System were initially protected under the Antiquities Act.
  • Congress has the power to declare national monuments and has done so in 30 cases. Congress also has the power to abolish monuments but has exercised this option only on rare occasions and usually to provide some alternative form of protection. More frequently, Congress has acted to enlarge the monuments, adjust their boundaries, or change their status from national monuments to national parks.
  • Thirty-six monuments were more than 50,000 acres in size when originally designated, including lands that are now part of Grand Canyon National Park, Olympic National Park, and Glacier Bay National Park.

The Wilderness Society strongly supports the Antiquities Act and opposes any attempts to undermine its basic principles or to inappropriately limit presidential authority to protect our nation’s valuable natural heritage. This act has played a key role not just in the creation of many wonderful national monuments, but also in the expansion of our world-renowned National Park System. The Antiquities Act is integral to the rich public lands legacy that is the valued birthright of all Americans.

Here's more information about the Antiquities Act.

Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, Montana. Courtesy BLM.
Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument, Arizona. Courtesy BLM.