President Trump's Assault on the Antiquities Act Signals Trouble for National Parks and Monuments

April 26, 2017 | 3:38 pm
U.S. Bureau of Land Management
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

Without the Antiquities Act, now under attack by the Trump administration as part of its strategy to roll-back environmental protections and open public lands to increased exploitation for coal, oil and minerals, we might never have had the benefit of the Grand Canyon, Olympic or Acadia national parks.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president of the United States the power to designate lands and waters for permanent protection. Almost every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used the Act to place extraordinary archaeological, historic and natural sites under protection and out of reach of commercial exploitation.

Many sites originally designated as national monuments were later upgraded by Congress to become national parks, including Bryce Canyon, Saguaro and Death Valley. In many cases in the past, the Antiquities Act allowed presidents to protect vital natural and cultural resources when congressional leaders, often compromised by their ties to special interests representing coal, oil, timber and mining industries, were reluctant or unwilling to act.

A new Executive Order signed by President Trump on April 26th, 2017 puts this important regulatory tool for conservation and historic preservation at risk. The clear intention of the Executive Order is to lay the groundwork for shrinking national monuments or rescinding their designation entirely, in order to open currently protected public lands for untrammeled growth in coal, oil and minerals extraction.

A clear intention to open public lands for coal and oil exploitation

The Executive Order requires the Secretary of the Interior to review all presidential designations since 1996 of national monuments over 100,000 acres in size. However, in the short-term it appears particularly aimed at reversing designations or reducing the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments, which together comprise 3.23 million acres in Utah.

An attack on the Antiquities Act is an attack on all monuments and has huge implications for future presidents’ ability to protect important sites in the future.

President Trump announces the review of national monument designations, while Secretary Zinke and the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt look on. Photo: Department of the Interior

Remarkably, in its own press statement, the Department of the Interior (the federal agency responsible for managing and protecting our public lands) tips its hand and signals that it has no intention of undertaking a fair and independent review by describing Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears as the “bookends of modern Antiquities Act overreach”.

Secretary Zinke himself was quoted ridiculing “people in D.C. who have never been to an area, never grazed the land, fished the river, driven the trails, or looked locals in the eye, who are making the decisions and they have zero accountability to the impacted communities.”

But, in fact, national monument designations almost always derive from a local grassroots demand for greater protections, and usually only come after lengthy periods of community engagement and consultations.

A vital conservation tool in a changing environment

The Antiquities Act itself grew from years of pressure from archaeologists and those who were concerned about looting and damage to Ancestral Pueblo and other tribal sites in the Southwest. Over the years, its use has expanded to include natural sites on land and large marine ecosystems.

Presidents G. W. Bush and Barack Obama, for example, both designated important ocean areas as national monuments to safeguard marine productivity, fish spawning areas and fragile ecology. When President Obama announced the designation of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, he drew particular attention to the threat posed to this almost pristine area by climate change.

Conditions have changed since 1906. US population has more than tripled since then, urban and suburban growth has increased markedly and many of the archaeological and cultural sites that were once under threat mainly from looting and natural resource exploitation are now also vulnerable to climate change. UCS documented the climate threat in its 2014 report Landmarks at Risk and its 2016 report on climate threats to World Heritage sites, published with UNESCO and UNEP.

In his speech designating Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, President Obama cited the threat of climate change. Photo: James Watt/DOI/SeaPics

Tribal cultural resources under attack again

Ironically the attacks on tribal heritage that were behind the signing of the Antiquities Act in 1906 have come full circle with this new assault by the Trump administration more than a century later.

Five sovereign Tribes, all with ancestral ties to Bears Ears, including the Hopi and the Navajo Nation have formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to protect the monument. Bears Ears contains thousands of sacred and culturally important sites and many Native Americans continue to perform ceremonies and gather medicinal plants there. Bears Ears also contains thousands of archaeological sites, including, for example, the Lime Ridge Clovis site, providing evidence of occupation going back 11,000-13,000 years or longer.

Tourists who visit Bears Ears and other national park units in the Southwest, including World Heritage sites such as Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, are drawn not just to the incredible landscapes, but also to the extraordinary cliff houses, pit houses, pictographs and other Ancestral Pueblo remains.

Monuments provide local economic benefits

Tourism is an important economic driver around national parks and monuments. The National Park Service generated $34.9 billion in 2016 and supported 318,000 jobs. Bears Ears alone attracts more than 900,000 visitors annually, providing a very significant boost to the local communities.

A 2014 study of 17 national monuments by Headwaters Economics found that the local economies all expanded following the monument designation. Secretary Zinke seems to think that local communities are unhappy with national monuments, but a 2016 Colorado College poll showed that fully 80% of westerners oppose removing existing monument designations.

No president has ever tried to revoke a predecessor’s monument designation before, and if that is the direction this Administration is going in, we owe it to future generations to fight this action. The national monuments and parks of the United States tell the story of who we are and where we came from. They represent the diverse stories of Americans and help define us as a nation. An attack on national monuments is an attack on us all, and the histories we share.