The Antiquities Act: Choosing Winners And Losers

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Matthew Anderson Policy Analyst, Sutherland Institute

What would you think if you found out that one individual could take away your home, ruin your livelihood and destroy your culture – all in the name of securing his legacy and furthering a political agenda? Such a proposition seems impossible in the land of the free and home of the brave. But an antiquated law makes this a reality for countless Americans every day.

The presidential stroke of a pen has been determining who the winners and losers are on our public lands and waterways for more than a century. Under the Antiquities Act, presidents have complete authority to unilaterally designate wide swaths of our nation as national monuments. In repeated instances, this decision has led to the eviction of people from their homes, the destruction of their livelihoods and the erosion of their cultural practices. Without the collaboration and dialogue of the democratic process to check this unbridled power, a president’s political will and concern for his legacy determine how millions of acres of public land can be managed. By prioritizing the president’s will over America’s checks-and-balances system of government, the Antiquities Act disregards the well-being of millions of Americans of all races and cultures – treating them as little more than collateral damage.

A few examples are illustrative of the harm to human lives that the Antiquities Act makes possible by ignoring the principles of the American constitutional system.

Before an expanse of prairie and Native American ruins in northern Arizona was declared a national monument, it was home to a community of Navajos whose ancestors returned to settle the area after a forced march to an eastern New Mexico internment camp. For years these people took refuge there – trying to rebuild their lives, culture, and ties to ancestral lands.

But it wasn’t long before the federal government again invaded their lives. This time, however, it wasn’t Kit Carson’s army but a presidential proclamation. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge designated the area as the Wupatki National Monument and excluded protections for the Navajos from his proclamation. Without such protections, it was just a matter of time until the Navajos were pressured into leaving. Today, only one elderly Navajo woman remains.

Before President Bill Clinton designated the 1.8 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, almost half the families ranching in Utah’s Kane and Garfield counties had preserved and produced a livelihood from the land for more than 100 years. For generations, these families eked out a living in this remote corner of the state. Their lifestyle is about more than just making a living – it is an integral part of who they are, and it connects them to their cultural pioneer heritage.

But along with the national monument came land-use restrictions and revocations of grazing permits. Just 20 years later, there are few ranchers left in the area, and those that remain face an uphill battle as the Bureau of Land Management withdraws permits and closes much-needed rangeland. The ranchers are powerless in the face of the federal Leviathan – they can’t extend or move water lines within their allotments, fence riparian areas, maintain roads, or take other necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of their livestock. This is slowly pushing cattle off the range and systematically destroying the cultural and historical heritage of generations of ranching families.

Sadly, these two examples aren’t isolated circumstances. For every group that benefits from presidential monument designations, there are several who lose out. This is the natural result when one person is given unchecked authority to overrule the will of people in a community whose values he doesn’t share. We’ve seen where this leads: presidents with increasingly extreme environmental agendas designating more monuments of greater and greater size.

Americans deserve better. It is time to amend the Antiquities Act to require presidents wishing to designate national monuments to seek and adhere to local input: the will of the people most impacted by a monument designation. Only by reforming the Antiquities Act can the Americans affected most by national monuments – whether they be Native Americans, ranchers from southern Utah, or the millions of rural Americans whose identity and way of life is grounded in public lands – be assured that their voices will be heard and incorporated into land management along with those of liberal environmental interests.

Isn’t it time for the locals to be on the winning side?

Matthew Anderson is a policy analyst for the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.