The Antiquities Act has been hijacked — reform it now to prevent a national monument spree
© Getty Images

Abused by a succession of presidents, the 111-year-old Antiquities Act needs to be brought into the 21st century. In the wake of President Trump’s executive order calling for a review of national monument designations, some Western lawmakers are looking to do just that.

The law gives the president unilateral authority to designate an area as a national monument, restricting the types of activities that can occur on the land. The designation is meant to protect historical sites from being destroyed — a noble intent. But the law has too often been hijacked for political reasons and used for things it wasn't intended to do.

When the Antiquities Act was signed into law in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the legal infrastructure for protecting public land in the United States was virtually nonexistent. There were national parks, but the National Park Service was still a decade away.

That is no longer the case, and it is time for reform. Fortunately, the law itself points the way, and three members of Utah’s congressional delegation are leading the charge.     

When Jackson Hole National Monument became Grand Teton National Park in 1950, Congress exempted Wyoming from Antiquities Act designations without congressional approval. Similar protections are given to Alaska for new monuments over 5,000 acres.

Those are exceptions that should be available to every state.

ADVERTISEMENT
The intervening century since the law’s enactment has seen, in addition to the creation of the National Park Service, enactment of the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act, as well as the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which provides for temporary protection of land without the permanent designation associated with the Antiquities Act.

 

These laws include not just rigorous processes for protecting land, resources and national treasures but rigorous checks and balances that require the executive branch, Congress, states, localities and interest groups to work together to solve problems.

With the exception of Alaska and Wyoming, the Antiquities Act doesn’t.

The Trump administration argues that while national monuments are needed to protect important sites, some designations are overly broad and have been used to block economic activity important to neighboring communities.

That’s certainly what happened at Bears Ears in Utah, where state, local and tribal leaders worked for three years on a balanced solution with federal officials. Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Utah governor calls Bannon a 'bigot' after attacks on Romney MORE and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSupreme Court takes on same-sex wedding cake case House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama Trump really will shrink government, starting with national monuments MORE and congressman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopRyan picks his negotiating team for tax cut bill Trump really will shrink government, starting with national monuments Five things to know about Trump's national monuments order MORE of Utah have taken the lead on finding a solution in Washington.

Hatch described the work that he and other members of the Utah delegation, as well as state leaders, did to protect the Bears Ears site. They held countless meetings over a three-year period that included Native American tribes, members of the local community and other government leaders. They also made the Obama administration aware of their efforts and asked for the opportunity for local and state leaders to develop a plan for Bears Ears.

Instead, then-President Obama made the 1.3 million-acre designation in the waning days of the administration, during the week between Christmas and New Years of 2017.

Now Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is holding hearings to shed light on the problems, and has promised to introduce legislation that would shrink the size of Bears Ears and reform the Antiquities Act.

The executive order signed April 26 by President Trump calls for a review of national monument designations to see if their size should be changed to better reflect the needs of local communities.

Trump’s executive action to revisit the previous designations will be important in correcting past abuses, but executive action is not enough — indeed, an excess of executive authority is at the heart of the problem with the Antiquities Act.

Work by the House Natural Resources Committee under Chairman Bishop leadership's will help ensure that similar abuses don't happen in the future.

While the current occupant of the White House seems unlikely to go on a national monument spree, no executive order he issues will bind future presidents.

The effective reforms that gave two states added protections in the past should be the model followed by Congress for taking the Antiquities Act into the future.

 

Grant Kidwell is a senior policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.