The Antiquities Act of 1906 is an anomaly in a nation where major decisions are to be tempered by the filter of representation and compromise. It gives the president total authority to create national monuments.
One person’s total authority seldom serves the public as well as a democratic process, which is why the Constitution established three separate branches of government, each acting as a check on the others’ power.
Now, 113 years later, the time has come to reinstate democracy and representative government in the creation of monuments, which often affect the fortunes of residents who live nearby.
A bill reintroduced by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, this time co-sponsored by Utah’s junior senator, Mitt Romney, would exempt Utah from the act, requiring not only an act of Congress, but one of the state legislature, as well, before new monuments could be created in the Beehive State.
The bill isn’t perfect. It would prohibit a president from creating or expanding a monument in Utah. Why not also prohibit him from reducing the size of a monument? Shouldn’t local leaders have a say in any federal action that affects land within the state’s boundaries?
The only difference between President Donald Trump’s decree reducing the sizes of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears monuments and the decrees of earlier presidents creating them is that they enraged and delighted different groups. All were decrees, and a decree is not a process.
The senators are hoping to give Utah the same sort of protection already extended to Alaska and Wyoming. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a monument at Jackson Hole that raised suspicions he was trying to expand Grand Teton National Park, which Congress had refused to do.
Much later, President Jimmy Carter created 56 million acres of national monuments in Alaska.
Both instances eventually led to exemptions from the Antiquities Act for each state. A better solution would be to simply amend the act to require Congress to create all future monuments, in any state, through legislation.
The Antiquities Act became law in an era when Americans felt the need to preserve antiquities from so-called “pot hunters.” Rare artifacts were quickly disappearing from ancient ruins — often stolen for profit. The New York Times back then said tons of relics from Utah cliff dwellings had ended up at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and later were put up for auction.
Congress joined many outraged Americans in wanting a solution that would allow the government to be nimble enough to quickly preserve those artifacts.
Today it is unclear that the law has worked. Large monuments are difficult to police. Artifacts still disappear. Vandals cause damage.
The act, meanwhile, has in some cases become a political tool and a seemingly endless source of division and acrimony.41 comments on this story
The Protect Utah’s Rural Economy Act is similar to one Lee introduced last summer. Congress showed no interest in considering it then. Its chances may be slimmer today, with Democrats controlling the House. That might change if it included a specific prohibition against shrinking, as well as expanding or creating, new monuments.
Either way, it ought to be clear to all Americans that no single person should have the authority to re-designate large swaths of land without the public, and its representatives, having some voice.