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The Antiquities Act has become a tool for oppressing the West


Our founding fathers’ fear of tyranny drove them to great lengths to ensure a separation of powers in our Constitution. They created a system of checks and balances that is as much a part of the political fabric of America as Independence Day.

This system has produced sensible and collaborative policy for more than two centuries and is the gold standard of good and just government. Yet checks and balances are lacking in federal lands policy, and that absence has opened up the West to a host of devastating consequences.

In response to widespread looting and desecration of Native American historical sites near the turn of the 20th century, Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906. The law gave presidents the ability to unilaterally set aside federal lands as national monuments with the stroke of a pen. While the intentions of the law were pure, such unchecked, concentrated power has exposed the Act to widespread abuses from presidents of both political parties.

{mosads}If we compare the first eight administrations that utilized the Antiquities Act to create or expand national monuments with the last eight, average acquisitions have been 89 times larger since President Eisenhower took office. Such expansive designations fly in the face of the original intent of the Antiquities Act and its explicit language that national monuments must be confined to “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”


The driving force of this trend can largely be attributed to ulterior motives. Instead of focusing on the protection of specific historic, cultural and scientific objects, the modern designation process is now driven by political gamesmanship, climate change, presidential legacies, corporate interests, and outdoor recreation.

No one wins when these motivations force expansive designations – especially those whose daily lives depend on access to federal lands.

Prominent in this list of presidential abuses is President Obama’s designation of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument. This remote corner of southeastern Utah is a land of red-rock canyons, towering mesas and ancient cliff dwellings. More impressive than the landscape, however, are the native people who call this place home. Here local Navajos rely on access to these federal lands so they can collect firewood to heat their homes, hunt to feed their families, and graze their livestock to eke out a living.

But access to these lands feeds more than just their temporal needs. It also sustains them spiritually as a place to gather traditional herbs and medicines, conduct religious ceremonies, and connect with their ancestral heritage. Bears Ears mountain and its surroundings have been a constant for nearby Navajos in an ever-changing and evolving world.

Obama’s national monument designation threatens this history, culture and the future of local Navajos. Instead of listening to their concerns of how a monument will restrict access and bring flocks of tourists into their sacred places, Obama chose to appease corporate and environmental interests. Such is the result when one person – far removed from federal lands and the people who depend on them – has unchecked authority. Unfortunately, this type of scenario has played out time and again across the West.

No one individual should have the unilateral power to declare an area twice the size of Rhode Island as a “national monument” and drastically alter the lives of those near it without some type of checks and balances on the process.

It’s important to protect our national treasures, but there is a better way than vesting so much power in one individual. It is time to reform the Antiquities Act into a law by, of and for the people where constitutional safeguards protect antiquities and secure the future of rural Americans.

The designation process should include meaningful input and approval from state representatives and Congress. Most importantly, the process cries out for the voices of local residents — like Utah’s Navajo — who know and love our federal lands the most. They must be heard and represented through their state and congressional officials.

The democratic process and protection of our historic and cultural resources are not mutually exclusive. We need to create a transparent process that prevents presidential abuses and respects the original intentions of the Antiquities Act. That’s how we protect our national treasures as well as our uniquely American political heritage.

Matthew Anderson is director of the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of the nonprofit Sutherland Institute (@SutherlandInst) in Utah. Amy Oliver Cooke (@AmyOliverShow) is the executive vice president and director of the Energy and Environmental Policy Center for the Independence Institute (@i2idotorg), a free market think tank in Colorado.

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

Tags Amy Oliver Cooke Antiquities Act Barack Obama Bears Ears National Monument Matthew Anderson Navajo Navajo Nation Utah

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