President Trump made headlines recently by signing an executive measure ordering his interior secretary to review the designations of national monuments by past presidents.
According to Trump, the review is meant to give power back to the states and the people, saying it will end an “egregious abuse of federal power.” His critics worry it could open up certain protected areas to drilling and exploitation.
The controversy goes back to December when former President Barack Obama created the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, designating over 1 million acres as protected land. The action outraged Utah Republicans, who claimed Obama over extended his authority as chief executive.
It was then Obama decided to intervene, using the Antiquities Act of 1906 as justification.
The Antiquities Act gives the president and Congress the power to create national monuments from public land if the land is deemed to hold scientific or cultural value. Several Native American tribes view Bears Ears as sacred ground, and dwellings that date back thousands of years have been found in the surrounding area.
The act itself came about initially after years of looters desecrating Native American sites across the Southwest. After passing the House and Senate, it was signed into law on June 8, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, a strong conservationist in his own right, did not wait long to use the new powers granted by the act. On Sept. 24, 1906 he declared the Devils Tower in Wyoming as the first national monument; he would issue a total of 18 declarations for national monuments as president, including the Grand Canyon, Muir Woods and the Natural Bridges to name a few.
The Antiquities Act has become a flashpoint in the debate of states’ rights versus federal overreach since its inception.
Proponents of the act say it’s necessary for breaking through bureaucratic tape to save locations under immediate environmental threat. They argue the president can move quickly and decisively to defend areas not only for their historical value, but to be enjoyed by future generations of Americans.
In 1943 for example, President Franklin Roosevelt used the law to designate Jackson Hole in Wyoming as a national monument. This ultimately led Congress to include it as part of Grand Teton National Park, both of which are major tourist draws to the area.
Likewise, in 1996 President Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument in Utah. Clinton saved the unique rock outcroppings from excavation as a coal mine.
Conversely, opponents of the Antiquities Act argue the law is outdated, meant to stop looters and grave robbers rather than setting aside millions of acres. Opponents say it gives the president unilateral powers to circumvent the democratic process, bypassing state and local governments even if states don’t want new monuments inside their borders.
In the case of Roosevelt in 1943, the president declared Jackson Hole a monument because Congress refused to expand the Grand Tetons. The congressmen from Wyoming wanted the decision left to local government, and saw Roosevelt’s move as gross federal overreach.
Similarly, when Clinton created Utah’s Grand Staircase and ended plans for the coal mine, he angered locals who, in fact, had been in favor of the mine. And according to then-Governor Michael O. Leavitt, state officials only learned of Clinton’s plan from a news article nine days before it was announced.
The Antiquities Act has been a catalyst for debate since it was signed 111 years ago. As the Trump administration gears up for its monument reviews, tensions over how to protect our resources will certainly increase.
William Hadden is a contributor at Politicsay. He graduated from Belmont University with a degree in Journalism with a minor in Audio Video Production. William writes on American domestic issues, as well as international political news.