Land as Legacy: 20th Century American Presidents Left Land as Their Contribution for Future Generations to Enjoy

Article excerpt

When Richard Wetherill, a free-spirited rancher from Mancos, Colo., stumbled upon Cliff Palace in 1888, he was consumed by what he saw. He took great interest in the archeological site, and he quickly developed considerable skill and knowledge as both a hunter and seller of its treasures. His rapidly expanding business raised the ire of archeologists and anthropologists alike, and they pressured government officials to put a stop to the pilfering of America's heritage. It wasn't until June 8, 1906, however, that President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities, and few, if any, people in attendance appreciated the significance of the moment.

The Antiquities Act was designed to be a handy tool for protecting specific historic sites that were in imminent danger of being spoiled. Waiting for Congress to act on such matters could take forever, and what was endangered could be lost during the debate. The act's authors were careful to restrict its scope to protecting lands, "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 ..."

The act further stipulated that its violators could be fined up to $500, and that legitimate scientific organizations could continue to obtain permits to do their examinations, excavations and gatherings for the public good. Finally, the act gave the president of the United States the power 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 ..."

Theodore Roosevelt's Progressivism

In retrospect, it was no accident that the Antiquities Act coincided with Theodore Roosevelt's presidency. Roosevelt was an avid sportsman who relished outdoor life and revered nature. He was an Eastern intellectual who "came of age" in the American West. He later concluded, "I would not have been president, had it not been for my experience in North Dakota."

Roosevelt also embraced Progressivism, the belief that an enlightened group "in the know" should take responsibility for the direction of American society. Progressivism was a reaction to the excesses of individualism so characteristic of the late 19th century, and so well personified by Richard Wetherill. Wetherill, the freewheeling rancher who viewed the public domain as his for the taking, represented the old West that was now giving way grudgingly to a more ordered and settled America.

Three months after Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, he employed it in establishing Devils Tower in Wyoming as the country's first national monument. Devils Tower was not an endangered cultural heritage site. On the contrary, Roosevelt praised the basaltic column for its historic and scientific interest. Even more telling was Roosevelt's ensuing designation, at the urging of John Muir, of more than 800,000 acres as Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Clearly, the president was interpreting his discretionary power in the broadest possible sense. Roosevelt even capped his final 48 hours in office by setting aside more than 600,000 acres as Mount Olympus National Monument in Washington State, an act characterized by one historian as "Roosevelt's going-away present to himself."

What Roosevelt began, his successors continued. William Harding Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge all made frequent use of the Antiquities Act to protect both small and large pieces of the public estate. Some of the monuments were indeed established to protect American antiquities, but others reflected a more liberal interpretation of the act's language, giving presidents the power to create monuments for their historic or scientific interest.

The act's usage was paralleling a larger conservation movement, fueled by a cultural nationalism that championed the idea of giving controlled regulation of the nation's natural resources to a socially responsible, centralized government. …