Memo to Congress: The Antiquities Act helps make America great


THE HILL- Since President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law in 1906, eight Republican and eight Democratic presidents have used this visionary legislation to protect as national monuments 157 of the most treasured, natural, historic, and cultural sites across the country — places that not only hold special value for millions of Americans, but also bring significant economic gains to the communities that surround them.

However, the act is now threatened, with some members of Congress questioning its proven value and suggesting that it be repealed. That would eliminate the president’s ability to set aside remarkable — and irreplaceable — landscapes and cultural sites for the enjoyment, enrichment, and education of current and future generations.

National monuments are among the most stirring and historically significant places in the United States, and they include the Statue of Liberty; the Grand Canyon; Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the fortified island that took the first shots of the Civil War; sites in Alabama honoring the Freedom Riders who helped desegregate interstate bus travel during the Civil Rights Movement; the buttes, canyons, and archeological ruins of Bear’s Ears, Utah; and the ancient villages of Hovenweep in Colorado.

 In addition to preserving history, allowing Americans to connect with their heritage, and providing natural open spaces for recreation, national monuments bolster local economies by supporting jobs and attracting visitors who spend their dollars in “gateway” towns. For example, in the year after the designation of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico, the Bureau of Land Management’s Taos Field Office reported a 40 percent increase in visitors to the area. That same year, the gateway town of Taos enjoyed a 21 percent boost in tax revenue from tourism.

Our nation’s monuments also protect regions of scientific and ecological significance. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, located off the New England coast, includes critical habitat for sea life ranging from cold-water corals to sperm whales. Southeast Alaska’s Admiralty Island National Monument harbors one of the highest concentrations of brown bears in the world. Conservation is invaluable not only for the species that live in these areas, but also for the hunters and anglers pursuing those animals. And, yes, hunting and fishing are among the numerous recreational activities allowed in many national monuments.

Monument designation is also aimed at eliminating harm to sensitive areas. For example, in the Gold Butte region, poachers cut down 300-year-old Joshua trees and thieves stole artifacts before these lands were declared monuments. In the Bears Ears region, a 1,000-year-old petroglyph was cut out with a hacksaw.

The Antiquities Act has been a major success, and it is designed to preserve priceless pieces of our nation’s cultural and natural heritage. The statute allows the president to set aside exceptional sites. Congress can check executive overreach by passing legislation to eliminate a national monument if it believes the president has gone too far in designating a site. But in more than 110 years, no president has ever rescinded a monument and Congress has usually acted only to change — not eliminate — national monuments to parks or other protective designations.

Why? Perhaps because these special places are popular with the American people. In just one example, 20 years after the designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument sparked some opposition from residents and Utah’s congressional delegation, an independent poll found that 70 percent of Utahns felt the monument was good for the state.

Now, many groups, including those representing business communities, hunters, anglers, tourism operators, and the $887 billion outdoor retail industry, which sustains 7.6 million American jobs, have stepped forward to voice their support for preserving public lands — and the Antiquities Act.

I encourage Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has been asked by President Trump to review national monuments designated since 1996, to listen to these stakeholders as he considers his recommendations regarding these treasured public landscapes. I am confident that an open and transparent evaluation of our national monuments, with broad public input, will reinforce the strong rationale and support that led to their establishment.

Both President Trump and Secretary Zinke have expressed admiration for Teddy Roosevelt and his legacy of conserving uniquely American places for all to experience. Now they can follow in those footsteps by using — and urging Congress to preserve — the Antiquities Act, a law that has enabled presidents of both parties to promote and protect our country’s greatest assets, for our citizens and the world.