This week, 111 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Federal Antiquities Act into law — historical recognition by both Congress and a Republican president that there were places worthy of perpetual protection in the face of increasing American expansion.
Fast forward to several weeks ago when President Trump signed an executive order calling on the Department of Interior to re-evaluate a number of national monuments protected over the last two decades. This unprecedented action threatens the integrity of 27 monuments and is a first step towards a broader attack on national parks, refuges, and forests.
First, some history.
The Property Clause of the Constitution vests Congress with oversight over public lands. In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, delegating the authority to designate public lands to the president. In ceding that authority, Congress sought to expand the scope of protected lands by empowering the president to designate unique cultural landmarks, wildlife habitats and landscapes of remarkable scenic beauty as national monuments. Notably, while the Antiquities Act ceded authority to create national monuments by presidential proclamation, Congress retained its power to void that designation once made. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 states the executive branch has no authority to modify or revoke monument designations. Only Congress has that power.
Since its passage, 16 presidents of both parties have exercised power under the act. Monuments named by presidents under the act now include many of the most iconic national parks, like Grand Canyon in Arizona and Death Valley in California, both protected by presidents as monuments before attaining national park status through congressional actions.
Historically, monument (and national park) designation has almost always occurred over the objection of special interests seeking to exploit land and water for short-term financial gain. For example, when President Teddy Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon as a national monument, oil barons raised Cain. When Congress protected Congaree National Monument (now a national park) in South Carolina, it was opposed by timber interests. In these cases and dozens of others, opposition soon evaporated as those who love the outdoors flocked to these special places generating long-term economic growth from tourism and outdoor pursuits.
Today, public lands form the bedrock of an $887 billion outdoor recreation economy that annually brings 300 million people to sites across the country that are run by the National Park Service and over 2 million tourists to South Carolina.
To be clear, designation under the Antiquities Act is not a land grab; the act can only be used where lands are already managed by the federal government. Monument status simply protects spaces by designating them as special and shared by this generation and the next.
President Trump’s executive order is a direct threat to land and waters owned by every American. The president is under no obligation to designate new monuments. If he sees fit, he can follow proper channels and lobby Congress to repeal designations he deems unwise with whatever heft those arguments might carry with the people’s elected representatives. What the president cannot do is roll back the clock through presidential fiat. The recent executive order is presidential overreach that ignores overwhelming support to keep public lands in public hands.
The deadline to submit a public comment opposing the Trump administration’s plan for 26 national monuments is July 10. This illegal, exploitive, and un-American order should be opposed. Now is the time to object before there are further assaults on our lands. Send your comments directly to the Secretary of Interior or to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will forward them to the Department of Interior.
Ben Gregg is the executive director of South Carolina Wildlife Federation. He can be reached at email@example.com.