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War on the Monuments

Congressman Denny Rehberg’s legislation “The Montana Land Sovereignty Act”, as well as similar legislation with identical goals introduced by Utah and Idaho representatives, is a cynical attempt to shackle the President’s prerogative to create national monuments. Collectively these bills represent an effort to undermine the 1906 Antiquities Act which history has shown to be a valuable tool for land protection. The Act gives the President authority to designate national monuments on federal lands without local or Congressional approval.

Many of these monuments are later proven to be so popular they are upgraded to national park status by Congress.  Some of our most cherished national parks were originally established by Presidential decree using the Antiquities Act. They include Grand Canyon, Arches, Death Valley, Olympic, Glacier Bay, Saguaro,  Lassen Volcano, Joshua Tree, Petrified Forest, Zion, Kenai Fiords, Wrangell St Elias, Gates of the Arctic, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Bryce Canyon, Great Basin, Grand Teton, among others. In nearly all instances, there was local opposition to designation of these national monuments.  If it had been left to local approval for designation we would not now be enjoying many of these parks and monuments.

For instance, Teddy Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act in 1908 to designate an 800,000 acre Grand Canyon National Monument over the objections of local miners, loggers, and ranchers. Arizona’s Congressional delegation responded to Roosevelt’s action by blocking any appropriations for the new monument, and later succeeded in shrinking the size of the monument.  But by the 1990s attitudes towards the Grand Canyon had changed dramatically such that when the federal government was shut down by intransigence in Congress, Arizona official pleaded  to keep the Grand Canyon National Park operating , even volunteering to pay with state funds the salaries of rangers and other employees.

Similarly after President Franklin Roosevelt designated a portion of what is now the Grand Tetons National Park as a national monument, Wyoming’s Congressional delegation introduced legislation to abolish the monument. It was only Roosevelt’s veto that saved the monument which was later incorporated into Grand Teton National Park.

Locals in Jackson predicted the creation of the national monument would so harm the area’s economy that Jackson would become a “ghost town.”  Some Jackson residents openly questioned why anyone would pay good money to come look at a bunch of mountains.  We know today that lots of people are willing to pay good money to look at a bunch of mountains, and that Grand Teton National Park is one of the economic engines of Wyoming. Such is the lack of imagination that often resides among locals who have a very narrow perspective on the value of natural lands.

We can find many other examples of the short-sighted perspective of local residents. When President Jimmy Carter designated Kenai Fiords as a national monument in 1978, locals in Seward Alaska at the entrance to the new monument burned him in effigy. Go to Seward today and you will find that nearly all locals either economically dependent upon or at least glad that Kenai Fiords was established as a national monument and later a national park.

National Monument designation by executive order has proven to be a valuable conservation tool and any attempts to modify it should be opposed.

George Wuerthner of Helena, Montana is an ecologist, writer and photographer. He is the author of 35 books, many dealing with national parks.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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