The 1906 Antiquities Act has given presidents from across the political spectrum authority to preserve treasured landscapes and cultural sites from looters and extractive industries.
But the federal law has outlived its usefulness, according to Utah lawmakers who want the Beehive State exempted from it so that no future president will ever be able to designate a national monument here without the blessing of the state’s congressional delegation.
In the wake of the recent designation and dismantling of the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah, Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, is sponsoring HJR1.
“This is all about restoring civility and letting the people decide, rather than punting the political football back and forth from one administration to the next and all the ensuing lawsuits now taking place,” Albrecht told the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Monday.
“This is about continuing the dialogue, not cutting off. A good process leads to good results. The problem with the Antiquities Act is it encourages bad process,” he said. “There’s no comments, no public meetings, no environmental studies. It ties up [state trust] lands, which affects our school funding.”
Congress passed the law in 1906, authorizing presidents to impose emergency protections on American Indian cultural sites, and other “objects of historic and scientific interest,” that were being vandalized and stolen on public lands.
Several Navajo, Hopi and Ute tribal members spoke Monday against Albrecht’s bill, calling it an attack on tribal sovereignty and suppression of indigenous voices.
“The Antiquities Act was specifically put in place to protect our heritage as Native Americans,” said Cynthia Wilson, a Navajo who lives in San Juan County. “The [Bears Ears] proclamation states that traditional knowledge should be central to land management planning.”
Nizhone Meza said Utah has a sorry track record for respecting tribes and HJR1 is likely to worsen those tensions.
“This is a message bill. What should that message be?” Meza asked. “Why can’t the message be ‘Let’s not pass this resolution. Let’s work with them.’ The Antiquities Act is still a valuable tool that can be used for its original intent.”
The resolution’s demands would be met if Congress passes a bill introduced by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop that would severely limit presidential authority and require buy-in from local officials for any large designation under the Antiquities Act.
Ten presidents have wielded the law 20 times to establish or enlarge monuments in Utah, starting with Theodore Roosevelt’s 1908 proclamation designating Natural Bridges National Monument and, most recently, with Barack Obama’s Bears Ears designation.
MONUMENT DESIGNATIONS IN UTAH, by U.S. president and year
1908 Natural Bridges — 120 acres
William Howard Taft
1909 Mukutuweap — 16,000 acres (President Wilson enlarged to 92,800 acres and Congress redesignated as Zion National Park in 1919)
1909 Natural Bridges expansion — 2,620 acres
1910 Rainbow Bridge — 160 acres
1915 Dinosaur — 80 acres
1918 Mukutuweap renamed Zion, enlarged by 76,800 acres (Congress redesigned the park in 1919, now covers 146,624 acres)
1922 Timpanogos Cave — 250 acres
1923 Bryce Canyon — 7,440 acres (Congress in 1928 redesigned a park, which now covers 35,835 acres)
1923 Hovenweep — 286 acres (now 447 acres)
1929 Arches — 4,520 acres (it was enlarged by presidents Roosevelt and Johnson, and diminished by President Eisenhower)
1933 Cedar Breaks — 5,701 acres
1937 Capitol Reef — 37,060 acres
1937 Zion (Kolob section) —49,150 acres
1938 Dinosaur expansion — 203,885 acres (monument is now 283,885 acres)
1938 Arches expansion — 29,160 acres
John F. Kennedy
1962 Natural Bridges expansion — 5,236 acres (now covers 7,636 acres)
1968 Capitol Reef expansion —215,056 acres (Congress made a park in 1971, now covers 241,901 acres)
1969 Arches expansion — 48,943 acres (Congress in 1971 redesignated Arches as a national park, now covers 76,679 acres)
1996 Grand Staircase-Escalante — 1.7 million acres
2016 Bears Ears — 1.35 million acres
Source: National Park Service
President Donald Trump has twice invoked the law when he stripped 2 million acres from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments in December.
That move is under legal challenge by the five tribes that proposed Bears Ears, as well as several conservation and scientific groups. But it was applauded by local officials and the right-leaning Sutherland Institute, which claimed the big Utah designations far exceed the act’s scope.
“When you designate such large areas you can actually put the antiquities at increased risk of destruction and desecration because you are protecting areas in addition to the antiquities and when you do that you are spreading resources and manpower so far we can’t protect those things that need protection,” said Matt Anderson, who runs Sutherland’s Coalition for Self Government in the West.
Anderson claimed that the average size of designations has grown 89-fold when one compares those made by the first eight administrations to use the Antiquities Act with those made by the last eight administrations.
Another comparison paints a far less extreme picture. The average size of Theodore Roosevelt’s 18 monuments exceeded 85,000 acres; Obama’s 31 nonmarine designations averaged 185,311 acres. That amounts to a size ratio of only 2.3-to-1.
Sen. Brian Zehnder, R-Holladay, joined Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, in voting Monday against the bill, which advanced out of committee on a 3-2 vote. It has already passed the House on a 59-13 vote.
By the same 3-2 vote, the committee also advanced a related bill, HB136, which would bar local governmental entities from advocating for special federal land designation without first consulting with members of the Legislature.