House attempts to gut Antiquities Act--and the future of national monuments and parks

Grand Canyon National Park, originally protected under the Antiquities Act.

Credit: Michael Quinn (NPS), flickr.

The House passed a bill on March 26 that would gut the Antiquities Act, a law used by presidents from both parties to protect special places for more than a century.

The latest salvo against public lands, H.R. 1459, would add bureaucratic hurdles and arbitrary limits to the process of designating national monuments, a presidential tradition upheld since the Antiquities Act was first signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and used on a bipartisan basis by 16 presidents since then.

"Undermining the Antiquities Act is completely out of step with Americans’ overwhelming support for this bedrock law that has protected iconic places like the Grand Canyon, Acadia, Muir Woods, and Olympic national parks and landmarks from Alaska to the Florida Keys," said Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director at The Wilderness Society.

The bill passed by a narrow margin, with members of both parties in opposition. Next, it will go to the Senate. The Wilderness Society is determined to work with the Senate and White House to defeat this legislation and preserve the Antiquities Act. 

If it became law, the bill would...

  • Prevent presidents from declaring more than one monument in a state during each term without an express act of Congress;
  • Add bureaucratic hurdles by requiring additional government studies for most monument designations;
  • Waste taxpayer dollars--an additional $2 million over the next four years--on those studies, some of which would have to be submitted for Congressional review;
  • Make monument designations of under 5,000 acres temporary and subject to review by Congress within three years.  

Many of America’s most cherished public places, from Statue of Liberty to Giant Sequoia National Monument, were first protected under the Antiquities Act. More than 30 national parks, including Grand Canyon National Park and Pinnacles National Park were originally protected as monuments under the Antiquities Act.

Chiefly owing to partisan bickering, Congress remains in a protracted conservation slump, having barely protected any new public land since 2009. Under the Antiquities Act, presidents are able to fill the leadership void in such situations.

President Obama promised to keep that contingency handy in his most recent State of the Union Address. In March, he signaled that he was serious about it by adding Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands to the California Coastal National Monument, a broadly popular move.  Unfortunately, as the passage of H.R. 1459 makes clear, enemies of public lands are determined to severely damage even that vital last line of defense. 

A big step back

California's Pinnacles National Park, originally protected as a monument under the Antiquities Act. Credit: Kat Wong, flickr.

If the “Preventing New Parks” bill were to become law, we would be right back where we started: with public lands conservation measures languishing in Congress, and natural and historical landmarks cherished by ordinary Americans unable to get the protection they deserve.

In addition to placing stumbling blocks before future monument designations, the bill would waste taxpayer dollars and leave communities near public lands in limbo. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated it will cost an additional $2 million over the next four years in new government studies, a cruelly ironic waste of taxpayer money just months removed from a government shutdown that closed national parks and reminded many Americans of the value of  special  public lands. 

The fight is not over

While the passage of this bill in the House reveals the anti-wilderness stance of some members of Congress, others have voiced their support for the Antiquities Act. In January, more than 100 members of the House signed on to a letter supporting the president’s authority to designate national monuments. It stated: “Conservation and historic preservation initiatives with broad public support should not have to be sidelined or stalled because of political paralysis.” The final tally bore out this undercurrent of support for public lands. "The close vote today on H.R. 1459 clearly shows that there is strong bipartisan opposition to this ill-conceived legislation," added Rowsome.

Hopefully, conservation champions in the Senate will uphold the will of the American people and defend the Antiquities Act, thereby enabling the protection of future national parks and monuments.