Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Legacy of the Antiquities Act

Looting at Chaco Canyon's Pueblo Bonito spurred Edgar Lee Hewett to call for the passage of the 1906 Antiquities Act
In 1901, Richard and Marietta Wetherill filed for a homestead in the forgotten, barren landscape of New Mexico's Chaco Canyon. Their claim covered some low, dusty sandstone cliffs, a saltbrush-choked wash, and the single most significant archaeological site in the United States. Instead of farming his homestead claim, Richard Wetherill set up a trading post that sold stolen artifacts from Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, two great houses that formed the heart of the Ancestral Pueblo civilization.

Between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries, the Ancestral Pueblo had built the equivalent of a city in the canyon, complete with houses five stories tall containing hundreds of rooms and communal worship areas, or kivas, that could hold hundreds. The people of Chaco completed hundreds of miles of roads leading out from the canyon to points across the Four Corners area and traded with societies as far away as what is today Mexico. Through their intimate knowledge of the skies, Chaco astronomers recorded supernovas and Chaco architects aligned their sturdily built masonry buildings with the cardinal directions. By the fourteenth century, a variety of factors, potentially including a changing climate and the arrival of hostile neighbors, had driven the Ancestral Pueblo people from the canyon, leaving behind their stunning architecture and achievements.

Wetherill had come to Chaco Canyon from Colorado's Mesa Verde; as the first European American settler to report the existence of Mesa Verde's spectacular Cliff Palace, Wetherill took the work of excavating the site into his own hands. He partnered with Gustaf Nordenskiold, a Swedish scholar passing through Colorado, to explore and document Mesa Verde's abandoned cliff dwellings. While Nordenskiold helped instruct Wetherill how to properly excavate and document the site, he also decided to load a boxcar full of artifacts from the excavation and send it back to Europe. The looters that followed had fewer academic qualifications for conducting archaelogical digs but were no less greedy in ransacking the extraordinary cultural heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

In the late 1890s, Wetherill participated in an excavation at Chaco with the Hyde Expedition, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History and led by the New York archaeologist George Pepper. While the group's work was undoubtedly academic in intent, culturally significant artifacts from the Chaco great houses still found their way out of the canyon and into the hands of private collectors around the country. This infuriated Edgar Lee Hewett, the president of the New Mexico Normal School (today the New Mexico Highlands University), who saw the need for federal protection to preserve the former dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people throughout the Southwest. Despite a scant background in archaeology and anthropology, Hewett was fascinated by the dwellings found on New Mexico's Pajarito Plateau and by the evidence of a civilization at Chaco. In 1902, Hewett introduced the preservation-minded Iowa congressman John Lacey to some of the archaeological sites in the Southwest, which convinced Lacey of the necessity of a process to protect these sites.

Legislative efforts to prevent plunder at Southwestern archaeological sites had started a few years earlier, when the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had helped draft a bill that would limit archaeological excavations to qualified academic institutions. In the following years, numerous bills with similar intent were introduced to Congress but none were passed. Hewett's vision, however, was broader than simply placing restrictions on who could conduct archaeological digs: in 1905, Hewett drafted a bill that would grant the executive branch the power to set aside land of scientific or historic interest for preservation. Lacey, the Chairman of the Committee on Public Lands, introduced the bill to the Fifty-ninth Congress as HR 11016 in January of 1906; in June, the House and Senate passed the bill without much debate and President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law on June 8, 1906. The passage of the act was not noteworthy at the time; I've not been able to find any mention of it in the New York Times' archives.

The heart of the new law was a sentence that would reshape the course of American public land policy:
"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."           
Although generally unknown to today's public, the Antiquities Act has since become a monumental piece of legislation and perhaps the single most important land preservation act in American history. One key line of the legislation grants the President of the United States unilateral power to preserve federal land as a national monument, provided that the protected area is historically or scientifically important. National monuments have strict regulations against removing any natural or cultural objects; this regulation was essential for protecting the archaeological sites of the Southwest. Additionally, resource extraction is prohibited in national monuments, although recent monument designations have allowed for existing mining claims and grazing leases to be grandfathered in.

Within a year of the act's passage, Theodore Roosevelt designated Chaco Canyon National Monument, providing federal protection of the canyon's rich archaeological resources and ending the looting of the ancient pueblos. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson designated Bandelier National Monument on the Pajarito Plateau to protect the tuff cave dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo that were near and dear to Hewett's heart. Over the next century, the Antiquities Act was invoked many times to protect Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites throughout the Southwest- it is because of this act that remote cliff dwellings such as Keet Seel and the White House Ruin are today preserved in Navajo and Canyon de Chelly National Monuments. Aztec Ruins, Chimney Rock, Hovenweep, Wupatki, Tuzigoot, and Canyon of the Ancients are only some of the many national monuments designated using the act that today preserve a piece of the Southwest's cultural heritage.

Alcove House, one of the Ancestral Pueblo dwellings on the Pajarito Plateau, was protected in Bandelier National Monument by Woodrow Wilson's invocation of the Antiquities Act
While the first few national monuments were quite small in scope- Devils Tower and Montezuma Castle National Monuments cover just hundreds of acres- Theodore Roosevelt soon took a much broader reading of the powers granted by the act. The act calls for preservation of the "smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be projected"; in cases where entire ecosystems are of scientific interest, the president is endowed the power to set aside many millions of acres as a single national monument. Roosevelt twice chose to exercise this power, creating a national monument covering some 800,000 acres at the Grand Canyon and setting aside over a million acres of rain forest and alpine mountains on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. These designations are squarely within the spirit and intent of the original act: what use is it to preserve just 640 acres of the Grand Canyon?

Seastacks rise offshore along the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park, originally protected as Mount Olympus National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1909
Thirty of America's 59 national parks originated as national monuments established through executive action under the Antiquities Act. These 30 parks are today home to some of the most cherished landscapes on the continent, including the soaring sandstone walls of Zion, the wave-battered wilderness coast of Olympic, the pointed peaks of the Teton Range rising above Jackson Hole, the thousand-square mile glaciers of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias, and the yawning depths of the Grand Canyon. In many of these cases, decisive executive action through the Antiquities Act was necessary to preserve landscapes under imminent threat of development or destruction.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are only one of many geological wonders at Death Valley, which was protected through executive authority granted by the Antiquities Act in 1933.
The California Channel Islands were designated a national monument long before gaining full national park status
National monuments that retain their original designation protect cultural and natural landscapes that are just as significant as those of their better known park brethren. President Clinton's bold designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah was enormously unpopular in the state at the time, but has over time brought attention to an unmatched landscape of slickrock canyons that is home to the cross-bedded red sandstone of the Wave and provides tourist dollars to nearby communities. Devil's Tower, Theodore Roosevelt's first national monument designation, protects a basalt monolith rising a thousand feet out of the Great Plains. Hanford Reach National Monument, also established by Clinton, protects the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the United States and a desolate but beautiful landscape of sand dunes and sagebrush.

The Columbia River flows through Hanford Reach National Monument, established under the Antiquities Act in 2000 by Bill Clinton
Many opponents of the law question the utility of the act and its undemocratic nature. If a piece of land is so worth preserving, they argue, is it not better for it to be protected by an act of Congress? Congressional delegations from western states- Utah in particular- have long argued that the Antiquities Act is little short of tyranny, abrogating the need to consider local input for public land policy. Similar arguments have decried national monument designations as job killers that destroy economic opportunities for resource extraction in largely rural areas.

A key rationale for the Antiquities Act is the understanding that many natural and cultural resources, once destroyed or altered, can never be recovered. If the great houses of Chaco Canyon were torn down for their sandstone bricks or if the Grand Canyon were dammed for hydropower, reversing the effects of these actions would be difficult to impossible. Thus, a process for quick action to preserve lands needing protection is critical to save elements of this nation's cultural and natural heritage. Waiting for Congress to act can take far too long, as proponents of preserving the Grand Canyon found out in the early twentieth century.

Few if any Americans would challenge the idea that the Grand Canyon is a national treasure worth preserving for future generations. Over ten miles wide, a mile deep, and two hundred miles long, the Grand Canyon is an extraordinary testament to the power of erosion. Yet when Benjamin Harrison, then a senator, first drafted a bill for protecting the canyon as the nation's second national park in 1882, he was rebuffed by Congress; in fact, it took a full 37 years for Congress to finally approve the idea, establishing Grand Canyon National Park in 1919.

The establishment of the park was opposed by Arizona ranchers, prospectors, and tour operators. Ralph Henry Cameron was a champion of those who wanted the Grand Canyon to remain in private hands. As a businessman, he exploited the resources of the canyon and as a politician, he fought to prevent the preservation of what is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cameron operated a copper mine in the Grand Canyon and agreed with other local prospectors that the potential mineral wealth of the canyon was too valuable to allow a park to be established. Yet Cameron was not shy about trying to fleece tourists as well: as visitors began to trickle into the area, having heard of the canyon's wonders, Cameron opened a trail into the canyon and charged tourists a toll to hike down. Cameron also expressed interest in building dams to harness hydroelectric power from the canyon, though he never initiated any work on that idea. Cameron's constant opposition to the park helped delay its establishment; however, in 1908, Theodore Roosevelt, impatient with Congressional inaction on the Grand Canyon, declared much of the canyon to be a national monument.

The canyon's national monument designation paused resource exploitation, softened opposition to the park idea, and led to a national park designation a little over a decade later. The monument designation also launched the first major challenge to the Antiquities Act: Cameron sued the government, claiming that Roosevelt's broad reading of the Antiquities Act was invalid. In 1920, the Supreme Court vindicated Roosevelt, stating definitively that the Grand Canyon was "an object of scientific interest" and that the national monument designation fell within the powers granted in the Antiquities Act.

Without broad executive authority to declare national monuments, it's unclear that the Grand Canyon would be preserved in its current form today. Waiting decades for congressional action to confer national park status is not a feasible mechanism for protecting irreplacable landscapes. Local opposition should not disqualify land preservation: areas rich in natural resources attract those who would seek the short-term economic gains of developing those resources, so it is unsurprising when those residents then oppose attempts to curb resource exploitation. When managing public lands, these short-term local economic gains must be weighed against the utility that preservation would offer to the whole nation. It is difficult to argue that the personal financial gains of any mineral prospectors in the Grand Canyon would have been worth sacrificing a landscape that has inspired awe and wonder in tens of millions of Americans and been the subject of groundbreaking geological studies.

The argument that national monument designations are purely job killers has little merit. Few states have been as openly hostile towards the Antiquities Act as the state of Utah; yet Utah records $8 billion in tourist revenue annually, driven mainly by visitation to its five spectacular national parks. Four of those parks- Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Arches- were first protected as national monuments under the Antiquities Act and today draw millions of visitors from every corner of the world.

The sandstone walls of Zion Canyon were first protected in Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909
Arguments that national monument designations are locking away much of federal land from resource extraction are also misleading. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages nearly 250 million acres of land in the western states; just 30 million of those acres are currently preserved as wilderness or in national monuments. Over 150 million acres of BLM land are leased for livestock grazing and 63,000 oil and gas wells operate on this federal land. There is little evidence to argue that national monument designations on the scale of a million acres to preserve significant natural and cultural landscapes somehow represent a federal scheme to stamp out rural livelihoods. Additionally, in recent monument designations, the Department of Interior has worked to minimize impacts on key extractive industries. The newly designated Bears Ears National Monument, established by President Barack Obama to preserve a rich cultural landscape of thousands of Ancestral Puebloan dwellings and petroglyphs and a unique corner of the Utah canyonlands, was drawn with boundaries that specifically excluded a known uranium deposit. This balancing act allows local economies based on mining to continue operating while still saving most of this beautiful landscape. National monument designation now allows the federal government to protect the Ancestral Puebloan sites at Bears Ears, which have been subject to looting in recent years.

Yet this compromise has not stopped the Utah congressional delegation from mounting an attack on both Bears Ears National Monument and the Antiquities Act more broadly. Utah politicians point out the widespread unpopularity of the national monument designation in their state as evidence that the monument should be overturned. It is for these exact situations that the Antiquities Act is necessary. By nearly any measure, the landscape of the San Juan Basin is of historic and scientific interest: ask any archaeologist still discovering cliff dwellings in remote canyons on Cedar Mesa or paleontologists unearthing dinosaur bones from the Triassic near the Colorado River. These attributes of Bears Ears make it a landscape that can contribute to both scientific knowledge and recreational enjoyment, which likely outweighs the fairly meager utility gained by ranchers grazing the spare grass on its mesas.

I've yet to visit Bears Ears- here's an introduction to the new monument from Patagonia

After a series of national monument designations by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, western states are on the offensive, trying to convince President Donald Trump and Congress to repeal or reform the Antiquities Act. Calls for reform always include stipulations that national monument designations first receive local and state approval. However, as covered with the case of the Grand Canyon and as seen in case studies of national monument designation of beloved landscapes such as Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Kenai Fjords in Alaska, getting local approval for land preservation would mean no land preservation at all. Neither the prospectors in the Grand Canyon nor the ranchers of Jackson Hole agreed to voluntarily cease their activities for the creation of a park, so a reworded Antiquities Act would have been powerless to protect these irreplacable landscapes. To be an effective tool, the Antiquities Act must remain worded as is.

Lupine blooms on a mountainside in Kenai Fjords National Park, which was first protected as a national monument when Jimmy Carter exercised the power of the Antiquities Act to protect a sweeping portion of Alaska public lands.
President Trump has taken this skeptical view of the Antiquities Act a step further, ordering a review of national monuments exceeding 100,000 acres established under the act by Obama, President George W. Bush, and Clinton dating back to the establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The intent of this move is clear: the current administration plans to cut the size of existing national monuments established in the last two decades.

There is little precedent to understand the potential fallout of rollbacks in national monuments by the executive branch. Congress can act to strip national monument status, as happened at Fossil Cycad National Monument in South Dakota, where park mismanagement allowed vandals to remove all the fossils. Woodrow Wilson also unilaterally cut over half a million acres off of Mount Olympus National Monument in 1915 by executive action, a move that was unchallenged at the time. What is clear, however, is that both of these cases of national monument diminishment were tragic losses of scientifically important landscapes.

The slickrock canyons of the Escalante, the cliff dwellings of Cedar Mesa, the high peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains- these landscapes, all protected in national monuments and now potentially up for reconsideration, are all worthy of federal protection. Their future status is uncertain; if those opposed to the Antiquities Act have their way, it is not out of the question that these lands may be opened up to mining or drilling leases by the BLM or that they may be returned to the states, a transfer that is generally correlated with increased resource extraction on public lands. These lands are part of an extraordinary cultural and natural heritage that belong to all of us. The thrill of gazing up at vertical walls of a slot canyon carved into the sandstone, the sense of wonder at peoples who built a great civilization in the desert, the dusk colors of the sunset view from the San Gabriels, the awe that arises upon seeing a fossil of an organism that lived 100 million years ago- all of these belong to you and to me and to every American who comes after us, because of the Antiquities Act.

Don't let the Antiquities Act die. Save the best tool there is for saving this country's extraordinary cultural and natural heritage. Convince Congress and the president to hold onto the act that gave the Grand Canyon to the public. Defend Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante and every other national monument: call your congressperson, or call one from Utah. Better yet, call the governor of Utah or tweet at Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke and tell them how excited you are to hike to the Wave in Escalante or explore the House on Fire ruin in Bears Ears. Then lace up your boots and go. Explore the land that belongs to you. Discover for yourself the legacy of the Antiquities Act. Commit to saving these lands for every generation that will come after us.

Sunset view from San Gabriel Peak in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, protected by Barack Obama using the authority of the Antiquities Act in 2014.
Addendum: Despite this generally glowing overview of the Antiquities Act, I am aware of the role that land preservation policy has historically played in exacerbating inequality for indigenous peoples and for rural residents that depend on using the land for their livelihood. However, current approaches for applying the Antiquities Act now try to address both issues: the Bears Ears designation involved input from five Four Corners tribes and compromises with companies mining uranium in the San Juan Basin. Ultimately, I believe that preservation outcomes under the Antiquities Act have been a net positive for this nation, but I am open to conversations on how to further improve economic outcomes for local communities without diluting the power of the act.

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