Recently I posted an article about the Bears Ears National Monument controversy. I used the story to urge readers to be diligent in protecting our parks and wilderness areas, such as the Appalachian Trail. Many may not realize that the AT is , for classification purposes, a national park – its formal name is the National Scenic Appalachian Trail. Hence, the careful observer wonders if the reference to a national “monument” in the discussion of the Bears Ears controversy is intentional.
Only Congress can create a National Park, but a 1906 act of Congress – the Antiquities Act of 1906 – permits the president to designate “monuments” for protection. Since, 1933, every president has used this authority – some more than others. Obama used it more extensively than any prior president and one of his very last acts, as president in December 2016 was to designate Bears Ears as a monument. Trump has ordered a review of all 27 “national monument” designations since 1996. In December 2017 Secretary of Interior Zinke recommended that 6 of the 27 “monuments be reduced in size. Among the recommendations was cutting back Bears Ears projected acreage from over 1.3 million to 200,000.
What difference does it make? There are twenty different names for “areas” in the National Park System – in additional to national parks and national monuments, we have national “landscapes, “ and “battlefields” and “preserves” and “parkways” and “historic sites” and many others (including the National Scenic Appalachian “Trail”). In many respects the differences are in name only however usage and management specifics are spelled out in the legislation or order creating the particular area. While the “national” designation indicates a significant level of preservation and protection, many uses other than outdoor recreation can be permitted such as grazing, hunting, mining, timber removal, and agriculture. With reference to the authorizing legislation, oil and gas exploration is even permitted in some national “parks.”
Congress typically treats the different “areas” equally, but that national “parks” generally get more funding. “Monuments” can become “parks” as was the case with the Grand Canyon, Bryce, the C & O Canal, and others can become “preserves” as was the case with millions of acres of federal land in Alaska known as Denali, Gates of the Artic and Noatak.
In encouraging the Trump administration to rescind or alter the Bears Ears designation, Utah Governor Herbert indicated that past presidents had been “cavalier” with their application of the 1906 Antiquities Act. He said the act was intended to grant power to protect the “smallest area necessary to protect the objects that we’re trying to preserve” and presumably to protect a large, million-acre tract of land. Among the pressures giving rise to the original adoption of the Antiquities Act was an urging to protect Indian artifacts that were being plundered – some point to that “legislative history” to suggest monument designation was intended to protect a fairly narrow area or specific protection. Among the more narrowly focused monuments are the Statute of Liberty, Ft. Sumter, Mt. Rushmore, Castle Clinton and the Muir Woods, however, many earlier presidents have use the national “monument” designation to preserve large land masses areas (such as the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Denali and Grand Staircase-Escalante). It is likely that over the next few years the federal courts will provide answers to those questions – and, of course, Congress could clarify the situation by adopting legislation clarifying its earlier intent in passing the Antiquities Act.
We are reminded about Teddy Roosevelt’s observations about our national parks and monuments.
We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people
ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish
to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.
— Theodore Roosevelt
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Last modified: February 16, 2018