More than a century ago, Congress passed a modest proposal that would cause monumental problems for Utah: The Antiquities Act of 1906.
The Antiquities Act was designed to preserve our nation’s rich cultural heritage by giving presidents limited authority to place small sections of land under federal control to protect archaeological sites from looting and defacement. The Antiquities Act was a well-intentioned response to a serious problem. But in the last two decades, presidents have exploited this law in the extreme, using it as pretext to enact some of the most egregious land grabs in our nation’s history. More than any state in the union, Utah has suffered the consequences of this federal overreach.
Bears Ears is a case in point.
In the parting shot of his presidency, President Barack Obama defied the entire Utah congressional delegation and the will of his own constituents when he declared the Bears Ears area a national monument. He did so citing his authority under the Antiquities Act. With the stroke of a pen, Obama locked away an astonishing 1.35 million acres of land — a geographic area larger than the total acreage of all five of Utah’s national parks combined.
Obama used the Antiquities Act as cover for his federal overreach. But he was far from the first to do so. Indeed, time and again, past presidents have abused their power under the Antiquities Act to proclaim massive monument designations that lock away millions of acres of public land. Rather than advancing the important cause of conservation, these national monuments have come to symbolize Washington at its worst.
So how did we get here? How did a century-old law — which was intended to give presidents only narrow authority to designate special landmarks — become a blunt instrument for executive overreach?
We need only look at the history of the Antiquities Act and its enactment to see how far this law has strayed from its intended use. As with any law, congressional intent is key. Just before Congress passed the Antiquities Act more than 100 years ago, the bill’s lead sponsor — Congressman John Lacey of Texas — was asked how much land his proposal would take off the market in Western states. Lacey gave a simple response: “Not very much. The bill provides that it shall be the smallest area necessary for the care and maintenance of the objects to be preserved” (emphasis added).
The smallest area necessary.
These words are damning in light of recent monument designations, which — far from regulating the smallest area necessary — have sought to restrict the largest area possible.
For years, I have fought to check the abuse of executive power under the Antiquities Act. That’s why I’ve been working closely with the Trump administration from day one to right the wrongs of previous administrations.
In the opening weeks of his presidency, I met personally with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office to discuss the national monument issue at length. He listened intently as I relayed the fears and frustrations of thousands in our state who have been personally hurt by the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monument designations. I explained the urgency of addressing the harm caused by these devastating measures, and I asked for his help in doing so.
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I was encouraged that — unlike his predecessor — Trump actually took the time to listen and understand the heavy toll of such overreaching actions. Our president even assured me that he stands ready to work with us to undo the damage wrought by previous presidents under the Antiquities Act.
With Trump, we now have the White House on our side in the fight for local control. In protecting our public lands, I look forward to working with the Trump administration to establish a new precedent of collaboration and trust between states and the federal government.
Orrin Hatch is the senior U.S. senator from Utah.