On a winter Monday in December 2017, President Donald Trump was in Utah, signing two proclamations which effectively shrank the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by 85 percent and 50 percent respectively. The change also took what had been two national monuments and created five in their place.
All this stems from something called the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Act resulted from concerns over protecting prehistoric Native American ruins and artifacts (“antiquities”) on federal lands, and was intended to allow the President (or Congress) to set aside certain land for “… the protection of objects of historic and scientific interest”, which would be called “National Monuments”.
The Act explicitly limits the size of National Monuments to “be confined to the smallest area” possible”, and not just in some cases, but in “all cases“:
Sec. 2. That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected …
What’s more, the Act specifically limits the creation of National Monuments to (1) historic landmarks, (2) historic and prehistoric structures, and (3) other objects of historic or scientific interest.
Rocks, trees, animals, valleys, vistas, views, deserts, or formations are not historical “objects” under the intent of the Act. Using the Act to protect these is a misuse of the Act. “Protecting” these and would be more appropriately addressed as a National or State Park. In fact, many sites which began as National Monuments have been absorbed into National Parks under similar reasoning.
Unfortunately, none of that seems to matter to folks like Yvon Chouinard, billionaire owner of Patagonia, who immediately announced plans to sue the Trump administration:
“The President Stole Your Land. In an illegal move, the president just reduced the size of Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. This is the largest elimination of protected land in American history.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The land in question was Federally “owned” before Obama’s land-grab, was Federally “owned” after Obama’s designation, and is still Federally “owned” after Trump’s re-designation.
Additionally, Trump’s action didn’t “eliminate” the land. It’s still there. And it’s still under Federal control. The difference? Before the change, if you wanted to wear your Patagonia-branded clothing in either of the National Monuments, you had to do so from the road. After the change, you can now wear your Patagonia-branded clothing on a hike through most of the Federal land which had previously been encompassed by the National Monuments – except in those areas where the “protection of objects of historic and scientific interest” is valid and “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care”. Those areas are still protected as National Monuments.
“The Antiquities Act was supposed to protect archaeological sites from souvenir hunters. Once the land is declared a national monument, it’s closed. And I mean closed to ranching, mining, and development — but also to you. Don’t you dare pitch a tent there. This is not a park.” – Glenn Beck
Native Americans from the region were in attendance at Monday’s event, and were grateful for President Trump’s actions, returning their sacred lands so they may continue to be used according to the custom and traditions of their ancestors – rather than according to the rules and policies set by Special Interest Groups and D.C.-based committees.