Since the time Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law in 1906 and then put it to use to save places like the Grand Canyon and Muir Woods, the Antiquities Act has been the most important tool in the history of American conservation.
Over the course of more than one hundred years, virtually every president since then—Republicans and Democrats in equal number—has used it to create national monuments that preserve iconic parts of our landscape or historical legacy for future generations.
During that time, the Antiquities Act has served the American people well. It has allowed presidents, most often in the face of legislative logjams created by narrow special interests, to act on behalf of all the people. Nearly half of our national parks first began as national monuments—from the Grand Canyon to Acadia, from the Dry Tortugas off the tip of Key West to the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska, from Death Valley and the Petrified Forest to the Channel Islands and Arches National Parks, and on and on.
History also shows that during those hundred years, there have been repeated attempts to weaken or abolish the Antiquities Act. Fortunately for the nation, those efforts have been consistently turned back because, again and again, the Act has proven itself crucial to the historical moment. Does anyone now think (as some did when Roosevelt first used it) that the Grand Canyon should not have been set aside against commercial development or privatization?
In doing our film on the history of the national parks, we found similar instances in which those who initially opposed a president’s use of the Antiquities Act ultimately saw the wisdom of it. Politicians who denounced Franklin Roosevelt for setting aside what became the bulk of Grand Teton National Park told us that in retrospect they had been wrong: the expanded park was not only beautiful, it was an essential economic engine for that part of Wyoming. Citizens in Seward, Alaska, who predicted doom when what became Kenai Fjords National Park was first preserved as a national monument in 1980, told us how it had, in fact, saved the town’s financial fortunes. Most recently, when the brief governmental shutdown closed the national parks and caused huge business losses in gateway communities, fourteen of the parks were reopened with state government donations because they were deemed so vital to their state’s economy; nine of those parks were originally designated as national monuments under the Antiquities Act.
Now the Antiquities Act is under attack in Congress once more. To weaken it would be the biggest blow to land conservation and the future of national parks since the time the Act was first passed. Instead, we hope Congress will heed the words of the great president who set it in motion. Upon his first visit to the Grand Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt offered this advice about the geological marvel before him: “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.” The same applies to the Antiquities Act, now more than a century old. Leave it as it is.
Burns is a producer and director of documentary films. Duncan is a writer and producer. Burns and Duncan produced the Emmy-winning documentary series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.