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William Thornton: Why America needs the Antiquities Act

William Thornton: Why America needs the Antiquities Act

As we await official recommendations from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s executive ordered “review” of national monuments over 100,000 acres created since 1996, a new threat to public lands is on the horizon.

HR 3990 passed the House Natural Resources Committee by party line vote on October 10. Key provisions limit the size of future national monument designations under the Antiquities Act to 85,000 acres, and give veto power to any state with a proposed new national monument within its boundaries.

Committee Chair Rob Bishop of Utah dismissed concerns that HB 3990 could have derailed protection for Grand Canyon, Zion and other parks by noting that only Congress can create a national park. True so far as it goes, but extremely misleading.

For more than a century nearly every attempt to set aside public land to protect natural and cultural resources has met with vocal opposition from mining, ranching, logging and other commercial interests, replete with forecasts of economic collapse.

In 1897 an Arizona newspaper called early efforts to protect the Grand Canyon “a fiendish and diabolical scheme” claiming that Arizona’s future depended on mineral extraction. Bills to create a national park were repeatedly voted down in Congress.

President Theodore Roosevelt created Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908 under authority granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906. Even so, the same interests that opposed any protection for the canyon delayed the upgrade to National Park status until 1919.

Petrified Forest National Park provides an illustrative example of a case where urgent action was needed to save an irreplaceable national treasure. Army Lt. Lorenzo Sitgreaves first reported the existence of “stone trees” in northern Arizona in 1851, but the petrified forest remained virtually unknown until the Santa Fe railroad provided easy access in 1883.

Despite reports of rampant looting by souvenir hunters and gem collectors, Congress rejected a bill to create a Petrified Forest National Park in 1895. Construction of a mill to crush 225-million-year-old petrified logs into abrasives posed a threat that required immediate action. On Dec. 8, 1906 President Roosevelt used the act to designate Petrified Forest National Monument. National Park status was granted in 1962.

Make no mistake, without the Antiquities Act, commercial interests concerned only with short-term profits could have irreparably marred the Grand Canyon, and totally destroyed the Petrified Forest before Congress was sufficiently motivated to act.

Opponents of new national monuments frequently cite provisions of the Antiquities Act that require national monuments to be the “minimum size necessary” to protect the resource. During the 111 years since the act’s passage, extensive scientific research has revealed that ecosystems cannot be neatly contained within arbitrarily restricted limits, and the definition of “minimum size” has evolved accordingly.

To be fair I must note that HR 3990 recognizes the fact that presidents lack the unilateral authority to eliminate or downsize national monuments created by their predecessors. One beneficial provision does not negate the fact that the bill would make it all but impossible to provide meaningful protection for any public lands without the blessing of commercial interests that stand to benefit from their exploitation.

Our national parks and monuments are the envy of the world and owned by all Americans. Despite gloom and doom predictions by naysayers who have consistently opposed their creation, they continue to create billions of dollars of economic benefits for states that host them. Please contact Sens. Flake and McCain and your congressperson and respectfully request that they oppose HR 3990.

William Thornton is a second-generation Arizona native, lifelong outdoor enthusiast and conservationist. He is vice president of the Friends of Ironwood Forest.


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