Donald Trump recently signed an executive order that tasks the Interior Department with investigating 24 of the 57 national monuments designated since 1996. Some worry that this order is the first step in allowing presidents to reverse national monument designations.
But the order addresses a deeper issue — whether a century-old law has been abused by presidents in the last 20 years. While the Antiquities Act may have been important for preserving some Native American artifacts, recent monument designations have allowed presidents to affect the access to and use of millions of acres of land without regard to local effects.
Since 1906, the Antiquities Act has allowed presidents to change the use of land with the stroke of a pen — land that they have frequently never seen. The Antiquities Act was designed to allow presidents to protect lands that are in immediate danger of being damaged.
The Antiquities Act specifies that designated areas must cover “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” The first monument created under the Antiquities Act, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, covers 1,347 acres, less than 3 square miles. The monument covers the Devil’s Tower itself — nothing more.
Bears Ears National Monument, an area in southern Utah designated at the end of 2016, covers far more than the buttes it’s named for. The monument spans 1.35 million acres (roughly 2,100 square miles) and includes neighboring canyons, gulches and even an existing wilderness area.
When national monument designations are made over vast swaths of land, the results can be devastating to locals. In 1996, President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, an area in southern Utah that covers 1.9 million acres. Clinton announced the designation from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, more than 100 miles from the monument itself. When he announced the monument, locals and Utah officials were blindsided. While some Utahans were concerned about mining in the area, there was no local movement to manage and protect the land with a federal designation. It seems that Clinton might have designated the area purely in a political ploy, not in the interest of protecting the land.
In 2016, near the end of his time in office, President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears National Monument. Prior to the designation, Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, a Republican, proposed the Public Lands Initiative, an alternative to the national monument that would have created 11 national conservation areas and added to or created 41 wilderness areas. In addition, the bill would have opened up some of Utah’s lands to energy development.
While there may have been national support for the monument’s designation, many Utahans and those closest to the area did not want it. The designation restricts grazing and prohibits the collection of wood in the area. Since many locals depend on wood to heat their homes and cook their food, the national monument could hurt local people.
It’s easy to agree that the American landscape should be managed in such a way that our great-great-grandchildren will be able to enjoy its beauty. In that respect, the intentions of the Antiquities Act are noble. But designations like Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears that cover millions of acres and ignore local impacts suggest the law has been abused.
With so much evidence of federal overreach, we shouldn’t be afraid to examine recent national monument designations. When laws intended to protect some of our most valued landscapes are instead abused to win political battles, both current and future generations of Americans lose.