Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Monumental Achievements. and Controversy

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Monumental Achievements. and Controversy

Article excerpt

In his last week in office, President Barack Obama granted national monument status to two historic civil rights sites in Alabama, and a third site in South Carolina. He also expanded two existing national monuments in California and Oregon to add landmarks along the Pacific Coast and a significant mountainous landscape that is recognized for its exceptional biodiversity.

But, it was his actions a week earlier

- Obama's declaration of two national monuments in Utah and Nevada totaling almost 1.65 million acres - that has moved national monuments and other federal designations into an ongoing debate about presidential authority and the role of Congress to save special places.

Obama wrapped up his conservation legacy by designating more national monuments than any of his predecessors, including a balance of historic sites primarily focused on human rights and landscapes like Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which protects 87,600 acres of Maine forestland from eminent development threats, and Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.3-million-acre landscape in southern Utah with important archaeological sites. While preservationists and conservationists have lauded his efforts, a number of lawmakers have taken to undoing the 1906 Antiquities Act that gave Obama, and all presidents since 1906, the authority to grant national monument status.

The Antiquities Act

The Antiquities Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt, was immediately used to protect a monolithic rock feature in Wyoming through the designation of Devils Tower National Monument. Roosevelt went on to proclaim more than a dozen national monuments, including Muir Woods National Monument in northern California, saving it from logging threats, and Grand Canyon National Monument, which was later expanded by Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Antiquities Act and eventually named a national park by Woodrow Wilson.

In fact, many well-known landmarks were initially protected through presidential proclamation: Zion (Taft, 1909 and F.D. Roosevelt, 1927), the Statue of Liberty (Coolidge, 1924), Arches (Hoover, 1929), Denali (Carter, 1978), Grand Staircase-Escalante (Clinton, 1996) and World War II Valor in the Pacific (G.W. Bush, 2008). Many were later expanded and renamed through congressional legislation.

President Obama's proclamations in late December of Gold Butte, a 300,000acre national monument in southern Nevada, and Bears Ears in southern Utah fired up a long-simmering dispute about the Antiquities Act. Nevada's Republican Senator Dean Heller and Congressman Mark Amodei filed legislation in early January, which, if passed, would restrict future national monuments from being created in Nevada without congressional approval. In Utah, the governor, federal and state lawmakers have vowed to undo Obama's designation of Bear's Ears or, at the very least, to drastically reduce the protected acreage.

While political posturing and legal opinion about completely undoing a national monument seem in direct conflict, reducing the size of a national monument has been undertaken in a few instances. Legal experts maintain that presidential use of the Antiquities Act must identify historic, cultural and scientific resources and that the boundaries of the national monument be adequate - but not far extended - to protect those resources.

Yes, Congress could overturn a president's decision to create a national monument but that is highly unlikely. According to Colorado law professor Mark Squillace in a February article in the Christian Science Monitor: "It turns out that the designation of national monuments is very popular with the public."

Top Down or Bottom Up?

The route to creating a national monument is typically arduous and often takes years. To be considered, the site must be nationally significant and meet a defined list of criteria. According to the National Park Service, it must be an outstanding example of a specific type of resource, it must illustrate or interpret cultural or natural themes, must provide opportunities for scientific study or recreational use, or must be relatively unspoiled. …

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