The Antiquities Act and the Conservation Legacy of Republicans


Why is it that the Republicans continue to ignore their own conservation heritage? The latest chest-pounding, finger pointing grandstanding has been by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop whose H.R. 1459 passed the House. His bill attempts to gut the 1906 Antiquities Act signed into law by my hero Republican President Theodore Roosevelt who used it to set aside 18 national monuments including Natural Bridges west of Blanding.  TR’s successor Republican President William Howard Taft set aside additional national monuments such as Mukuntuweap in 1909 now called Zion, and Rainbow Bridge in 1910 in San Juan County.

Utah is deeply proud of its history. So why does Rob Bishop not understand that every national park in Utah, except Canyonlands, began as a presidentially-decreed national monument? Does he not want the tourist dollars those national parks bring to the Beehive State?

Arches National Park began as a national monument designated by a Republican president.

Arches National Park began as a national monument designated by a Republican president.


What is it about Republicans that makes them unable or unwilling to embrace the conservation legacy of their own party? Natural resource conservation and political conservatism have the same root word. My American Heritage Dictionary defines conservation as “The act or process of conserving, the controlled use and systematic protection of natural resources.” On the same page conservatism is defined as “the disposition in politics to maintain the existing order and to resist or oppose change.” So why alter the Antiquities Act, which is an Executive power that has worked effectively for both parties for over a century?

TR used the law to save some of our most important natural, cultural and historic sites in the American West including Devils Tower in Wyoming, Chaco Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Miners were digging away at the Grand Canyon. Arizona politicians continued to block attempts to protect it. The Antiquities Act enables the president to set aside from the public domain lands of scenic and scientific value in the smallest acreage possible.

But Teddy never did anything small. He set aside 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon and Arizona politicians went apoplectic. They forced the Antiquities Act into the Supreme Court where the justices ruled that the president indeed has those powers and can set aside whatever acreage is necessary.

As the Salt Lake Tribune noted in a recent editorial, “Turning a piece of federally owned land—land held in trust for all the people of the United States, present and future—into a national monument is an innately forward-thinking act.” Congress voted Teddy’s Grand Canyon National Monument into National Park status in 1919.

Now the Grand Canyon is on Arizona license plates and over four million annual visitors peer over the North and South Rims. What a great and prescient act by a Republican President who could think beyond the petty politics of his age to embrace a vast, ancient landscape. TR said, “Leave it as it is. Do not mar it. This is the one great site every American should see.”

Colorado and Utah both share Dinosaur National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument which straddle the state line.  Another Republican President, Herbert Hoover, set aside Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado. Republican Congressman Scott McInnis and Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell worked with Congress to expand and enlarge it into Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, now a national treasure in the San Luis Valley. Thanks to McInnis and Campbell, Black Canyon National Monument is now Black Canyon National Park, too.

In Alaska in the early 1980s, Democratic President Jimmy Carter used the Antiquities Act to set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine wilderness as national monuments. For his efforts he was burned in effigy. Later Congress converted those monuments into seven new Alaskan National Parks including Glacier Bay, visited by dozens of giant cruise ships each season. Alaskans now depend upon national park tourism as a vital component of their last frontier economy.

In Representative Bishop’s own state of Utah, presidentially set aside national monuments have become tourist magnets once Congress voted them as national parks. Republican President Warren Harding designated Timpanogos Cave in 1922 and Bryce Canyon a year later. In 1929 Republican President Herbert Hoover set aside Arches, which like Zion began as a national monument. Now national parks, Arches and Zion draw millions of dollars into Utah’s economy because they are part of the Golden Circle of National Parks in the Southwest which are a must-see destination for European and Japanese tourists who have no dramatic red rock canyons of their own.

A European family visiting Utah compare themselves to this large dinosaur leg bone at Dinosaur National Monument.

A European family visiting Utah compare themselves to this large dinosaur leg bone at Dinosaur National Monument.

The Durango Herald states that Bishop’s bill would “significantly restrict presidential powers under the Antiquities Act, such that, barring an act of Congress, any designations would be limited to one per four-year term. Fundamentally, it limits the means by which deserving public lands can be protected, and with Congress an increasingly less viable option, the Antiquities Act is more important than ever.”

We are in “the longest drought of conservation legislation since World War II,” opines the Denver Post, which argues that Bishop’s bill “establishes arbitrary hurdles designed to deliberately slow down conservation legislation already grinding at a glacial pace.”

When are Republicans going to wake up, smell the wild roses, and remember that conservation is part of their party’s legacy to America? Even President George W. Bush used the Antiquities Act, though the land he set aside is mainly under water. The nation’s largest marine protected area is now conserved thanks to the ink from his presidential pen. As our 75th national monument, Bush protected remote Hawaiian Islands covering 84 million acres known as “America’s Galapagos.” Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument is home to 7,000 species of fish, marine mammals, and birds at least one fourth of which are endemic or unique to Hawaii.

Republicans espouse family values and just where are those families supposed to recreate if not in national monuments and national parks? What happened to the conservation values which Republicans once championed? Think of the additional tourist revenue if President Barack Obama declared a San Rafael Swell National Monument, a Cedar Mesa National Monument, or adopted the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance’s Greater Canyonlands proposal. After declaring new national monuments in New Mexico and California Obama stated, “I’m not done.” Let’s hope so because there are landscapes of national and international value in Utah that need further protection.

Where’s Teddy when we need him? TR’s favorite phrase was an African epigram to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In times like these, forget about speaking softly. Thank goodness the Founding Fathers created a U.S. Senate to balance those Congressmen who cannot remember their own political party’s traditions.

Hopefully the Senate will discard H.R. 1459 as the legislative lunacy which it is. The Antiquities Act is not broken. It does not need to be fixed.

Leave a Reply