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The Many Faces of the Antiquities Act

A brief description of the many ways one piece of federal land management legislation has been implemented

The Act

The Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities is a century-old land management law giving the President of the United States the authority to designate “objects of historic or scientific interest” on federal lands as national monuments. Doing so allows him to sequester and repurpose federal land of historic or scientific interest at his own discretion. The stated goal of designating federal land under the Antiquities Act has been uniform since its inception: to establish, preserve, and protect areas and properties of national interest. Each and every president who has exercised his authority under the Antiquities Act has done so for this purpose. But what makes the Antiquities Act so unique, and so worth talking about, is how unusually versatile it has revealed itself to be.

The stated purpose has remained the same, but the act has been the center of a number of twists and turns in our nation’s environmental history. We have seen over the past century that a two-page law, shorter than the law passed to grant the Apollo 11 astronauts the Congressional Gold Medal, has been used in an exceptional variety of ways. The Antiquities Act has been the center of three distinct generations of executive implementation:

  1. First, the use of the law as a means through which to conserve western lands.
  2. Second, as a method of sparking political action to protect virgin wilderness.
  3. Third, as a tool to protect threatened aquatic ecosystems.

Setting the Stage for the Preservation of American Antiquities

The rapid acquisition of land by the United States in the first half of the 19th century gave the nation a sense of purpose. This purpose would engender the spirit of a generation of Americans who ventured westward into the unknown wilderness. After the coasts were connected and the wilderness was tamed,

Largest Designation as % of Total
T. Roosevelt 53%
Taft 46%
Wilson 91%
Harding 63%
Coolidge 92%
Hoover 59%
F.D. Roosevelt 31%[1]

American intellectuals and scientists grew concerned that the western half of the nation would change before their eyes, and its history and heritage would be lost. More specifically, ethnologists and anthropologists were worried that the culture and artifacts of Native American tribes would be sacked and destroyed by these explorers. Scientific Associations and legislators worked in vain for decades to coordinate efforts to protect historical artifacts and lands.

It wasn’t until the arrival Theodore Roosevelt in the Oval Office before conservation efforts were realized in a national scale. Roosevelt, a raucous and bombastic man who spent his free time boxing in the White House basement, is well known for his record as an advocate for the conservation of nature. In 1905, Roosevelt consolidated management of the nation’s forests through the establishment of the United States Forest Service, and he worked diligently with Congress to establish and protect national parks such as Crater Lake and Mesa Verde. Although interest in the preservation of Native American artifacts dissipated, the land conservationist movement was finally gaining some long-awaited traction.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt signed the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities in June 1906, which granted Roosevelt unprecedented authority to filter federal lands into the preservative system without the advice or consent of Congress. His first designation came later that year in the form of Devil’s Tower National Monument. Roosevelt then spent the next two years designating various forests, canyons and peaks as national monuments of the kind similar to the parks he had worked with Congress to establish in years prior.

It wasn’t until the end of his presidency that Roosevelt decided to aim higher and make his two most notable designations: Mount Olympus National Monument and Grand Canyon National Monument. These monuments spanned over 600,000 and 800,000 acres respectively, dwarfing all of his designations from the two years prior 18 times over. Each of these monuments would be redesignated years after as national parks.


This strategy was quite successful until Franklin Roosevelt made the controversial move in 1943 to designate Jackson Hole National Monument. The 221,000 acres FDR sought to protect as a national monument was adjacent to Grand Teton National Park and represented a large expansion of protected land in Wyoming. States’ rights advocates did not take kindly to the designation and protested, marching their cattle across federal lands in defiance. The act was even amended in 1950 to prohibit the president from designating federal lands in Wyoming without approval from Congress. Interest in executing on Antiquities Act authority waned and its expansive authority was pared down to smaller-scale management. The commotion was small in comparison to what would come later, but the damage was done.Roosevelt’s implementation strategy set the stage for the next thirty years of the Antiquities Act. The strategy followed a pattern of a set of minor redesignations and boundary rearrangements, combined with a few big-ticket items spanning hundreds of thousands of acres. It is through this strategy that we now have access to the Katmai National Park and Preserve, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and Death Valley National Park.

Jimmy Carter’s Leverage

The next thirty years after World War II were uneventful for the Act. The use of the law took a backseat to economic development and the ebbs and flows of the cold war, with various administrations using it to sequester off small portions of land and to redraw existing monument borders. It wasn’t until America’s Last Frontier, Alaska, was annexed in 1959 that the use of the Antiquities Act would once more enter the public discussion. The annexation of Alaska revived the sense of wonder that was felt in America a century earlier over the mysterious and beautiful wilderness – the protection of which would come in contention rather quickly with resource development.

In the late 1960’s Alaskan geologists made progress surveying some of the largest oil fields in the world, such as the Purdue Bay Oil Pool. Energy developers quickly realized the state of Alaska could serve as the oil supplier for the entire nation, with the potential to free the United States from its dependence on the increasingly tumultuous Middle East. Throughout the 1970’s Congress, the Executive Branch, and the State of Alaska struggled to agree on a responsible way to manage a stretch of land that was as pristine as it was valuable. Existing protected lands such as Katmai and Glacier bay were heralded as success stories, but animosity over federal control of these lands and the ongoing stresses of energy importation meant that garnering support for a comprehensive management plan was problematic.

Tensions reached an inflection point during the Carter Administration. After sparring with Congress for two years over how to preserve Alaskan territories, President Carter decided the Antiquities Act would be a good way to grease the wheels. In December 1978, President Carter declared over 56 million acres of Alaskan federal lands be designated as national monuments and be protected as wildlife refuges. In his designation justification, Carter explicitly stated his intention was to grease the wheels for Congressional action, stating “I felt it was imperative to protect all of these lands and preserve for the Congress an unhampered opportunity to act next year”. The message was clear: I acted, but you still have a chance to join me.

Citizens of the State of Alaska were unenthused by Carter’s decision. The backlash was swift and dramatic. Protests spread across the state, some burned Jimmy Carter in effigy, others vowed civil disobedience, and the order is to this day on the list of grievances asserted by Alaskan separatists. Carter felt the scorn of a state’s rights advocates, but the effort to spark Congressional action appeared to have worked. The Carter Administration was ultimately vindicated in 1980 with the passage of the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act. ANILCA reclassified most of the lands designated through Carter’s executive action and sequestered off over 100 million more land for protection.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s Marine Safeguard

Jimmy Carter’s presidency gave way to eight years of Ronald Reagan, followed by four years of George H.W. Bush. Through these twelve years, the Antiquities Act was left on the shelf. President Bill Clinton resurrected the Antiquities Act in 1996, declaring the Grand Staircase of Utah a national monument. After his reelection, later that year, Clinton began to use his authority under this act much more freely. By the end of his second term, President Clinton would designate well over two million more acres of land, including the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, the second marine monument (the first was JFK’s designation of an 850 acre reef in 1961).

George W. Bush and Barack Obama followed suit, holding off in their first terms and executing their authority quite aggressively in their second terms. Presidents Bush’s and Obama’s declarations were much larger than any monuments designated prior. The conversation surrounding the Antiquities Act quickly shifted from a discussion over hundreds of thousands of acres of land to hundreds of millions. In fact, two of President Obama’s expansions of the Papahānaumokuākea and Pacific Remote Islands National Monuments together are larger than every designation made by every president prior (including George W. Bush) combined. Each of these monuments were expansions of President Bush’s original declarations.

Both presidents also focused heavily on designating marine ecosystems as national monuments. Prior to President Clinton, the use of the act was almost exclusively focused on the designation of land.  Modern presidents have taken the original motifs of the monument protection – that of resource conservation, wildlife protection, and national appreciation – and have re-appropriated them for the purposes of marine ecosystem protection.



The Act is a Reflection of the Era

The modern use of the Antiquities Act is in some ways reflective of our nation’s evolving approach towards environmental policy. In the past twenty years, there have been two significant pieces of federal environmental legislation – the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the 21st Century Cures Act (also known as the Toxic Substances Control Act Reauthorization). Two of the nation’s seminal environmental statutes, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, have gone over twenty years without a reauthorization (although the laws are still being implemented) and consequent legislative restructuring. As a result, presidents who feel obligated to act on environmental issues are relegated to executive action using authority granted by century-old statutes such as the Antiquities Act.

The Antiquities Act is one of the most significant land management statutes available to the president. The dignity of monument designations gives the president, and the aegis it bestows on the lands make the act a true legacy item of Theodore Roosevelt. While the future of the act may be quite uncertain, the tale of the Antiquities Act tells us one thing for certain: precedent, tradition, and legacy sometimes have a way of taking a backseat to the executive’s ambitions.

[1] National Parks Conservation Association

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