The Antiquities Act and the conservation legacy of the GOP
Why is it that the Republicans continue to ignore their own conservation heritage? The latest chest-pounding, finger-pointing grandstanding has been by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah whose H.R. 1459 passed the House. His bill attempts to gut the 1906 Antiquities Act signed into law by my hero, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who used it to set aside 18 national monuments. His successor, Republican President William Howard Taft, set aside additional national monuments, including our local favorite Colorado National Monument and Rainbow Bridge in Utah.
What is it about Republicans that makes them unable or unwilling to embrace the conservation legacy of their own party? Natural resource conservation and political conservatism have the same root word. My American Heritage Dictionary defines conservation as “the act or process of conserving, the controlled use and systematic protection of natural resources.” On the same page conservatism is defined as “the disposition in politics to maintain the existing order and to resist or oppose change.” So, why alter the Antiquities Act, which is an executive power that has worked effectively for both parties for over a century?
TR used the law to save some of our most important natural, cultural and historic sites in the American West, including Devils Tower in Wyoming, Chaco Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Miners were digging away at the Grand Canyon. Arizona politicians continued to block attempts to protect it. The Antiquities Act enables the president to set aside from the public domain lands of scenic and scientific value in the smallest acreage possible.
But Teddy never did anything small. He set aside 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon and Arizona politicians went apoplectic. They forced the Antiquities Act into the Supreme Court where the justices ruled that the president indeed has those powers and can set aside whatever acreage is necessary.
As the Salt Lake Tribune noted in a recent editorial, “Turning a piece of federally owned land — land held in trust for all the people of the United States, present and future — into a national monument is an innately forward-thinking act.” Congress voted Teddy’s Grand Canyon National Monument into national park status in 1919.
Now the Grand Canyon is on Arizona license plates, and more than 4 million annual visitors peer over the North and South Rims. What a great and prescient act by a Republican president who could think beyond the petty politics of his age to embrace a vast, ancient landscape. TR said, “Leave it as it is. Do not mar it. This is the one great site every American should see.”
In Colorado we have Dinosaur National Monument straddling the state line into Utah. We have Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, the creation of which helped jumpstart environmental activism in our state in the 1970s. Another Republican president, Herbert Hoover, set aside Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Republican Congressman Scott McInnis and Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell worked together with Congress to expand and enlarge it into Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, now a national treasure in the San Luis Valley. Thanks to McInnis and Campbell, Black Canyon National Monument is now Black Canyon National Park, too.
In Alaska in the early 1980s, Democratic President Jimmy Carter used the Antiquities Act to set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine wilderness as national monuments. For his efforts he was burned in effigy. Later Congress converted those monuments into seven new Alaskan national parks including Glacier Bay, visited by dozens of giant cruise ships each season. Alaskans now depend upon national park tourism as a vital component of their last-frontier economy.
In Bishop’s own state of Utah, presidentially set aside national monuments have become tourist meccas and magnets once Congress voted them as national parks. Arches and Zion began as national monuments and now draw millions of dollars into Utah’s economy because they are part of the Golden Circle of National Parks in the Southwest, which are a must-see destination for European and Japanese tourists who have no dramatic red rock canyons of their own.
The Durango Herald says Bishop’s bill would “significantly restrict presidential powers under the Antiquities Act, such that, barring an act of Congress, any designations would be limited to one per four-year term. Fundamentally, it limits the means by which deserving public lands can be protected, and with Congress an increasingly less viable option, the Antiquities Act is more important than ever.”
We are in “the longest drought of conservation legislation since World War II,” opines the Denver Post, which argues that Bishop’s bill “establishes arbitrary hurdles designed to deliberately slow down conservation legislation already grinding at a glacial pace.”
When are Republicans going to wake up, smell the wild roses and remember that conservation is part of their party’s legacy to America? Even President George W. Bush used the Antiquities Act, though the land he set aside is mainly under water. The nation’s largest protected marine area is now conserved thanks to the ink from his presidential pen. As our 75th national monument, Bush protected remote Hawaiian Islands covering 84 million acres known as “America’s Galapagos.” Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument is home to 7,000 species of fish, marine mammals and birds — at least one-fourth of which are endemic or unique to Hawaii.
Why did Congressman Scott Tipton vote for Bishop’s bill? Does he not understand his party’s traditions and the importance of national monument and national park tourism to Western Colorado and America itself?
Where’s Teddy when we need him? TR’s favorite phrase was an African epigram to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In times like these, forget about speaking softly. Thank goodness the Founding Fathers created a U.S. Senate to balance those congressmen who cannot remember their own political party’s traditions.
Hopefully the Senate will discard H.R. 1459 as the legislative lunacy it is. The Antiquities Act is not broken. It does not need to be fixed.