Tom Elder: Let us now praise the Antiquities Act

Presidents should have the power to preserve public lands that belong to all Americans.

(Rick Bowmer | AP, pool) U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours near ancient dwellings along the Butler Wash trail with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, right, and other officials during a visit to Bears Ears National Monument Thursday, April 8, 2021, near Blanding

The April 13 commentary in The Salt Lake Tribune by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, describing the “abuses” of the Antiquities Act, deserves a Utahn’s response.

In speaking of Bears Ears National Monument, he says “we didn’t ask for” the monument, “Utah has been the unwilling host,” the land has been “locked up” “over the objections of state and local leaders,” to string together some of his objections.

These lands belong to all Americans, not just Utahns, and Bears Ears enjoyed great support within Utah, and overwhelming support nationally. But never mind, I want to focus on one comment in his commentary: “land decisions shouldn’t be subject to presidential fiat. It’s bad policy.”

Spencer Cox, like many conservative Republicans, simply doesn’t like the Antiquities Act. Because the Antiquities Act does indeed allow presidents to protect parts of our natural and cultural heritage.

The protection of areas of public land that are of great national interest has often been prevented by local politicians. It’s an unavoidable part of the story of the conservation of public lands. The history of the National Park Service is rife with governors, senators and commissioners stopping the preservation of very popular landscapes. In the meantime, those landscapes were often being despoiled by pot hunters or commercial interests.

The Antiquities Act gave presidents the ability to step in and give such lands protection. It was needed precisely because those areas were politically conflicted, and legislative solutions by Congress were stalled or not even attempted. In many cases, monument proclamations were later upgraded by Congress to national park status, often with expanded boundaries.

In 1909 — just three years after the passage of the Antiquities Act — part of Zion Canyon was first designated as a national monument (known at the time as Mukuntuweap National Monument). It wasn’t until 1956 that Congress redesignated the expanded Zion National Park that we know today. What damage to that environment might have been done in the intervening 47 years? Would Congress even have acted if attention had not been focused on Zion’s wonders? We will never know, of course. But does anyone today regret the initial protection of Zion?

This same story has been played out again and again. Bryce Canyon National Monument, established in 1923, was upgraded to Bryce National Park in 1928. Arches National Monument, established in 1929, became Arches National Park in 1971 — a 42 year wait. Capitol Reef went from national monument (1937) to national park (1971). In fact, four out of Utah’s “Mighty Five” parks were first protected under the Antiquities Act. That act gave them interim protection until Congress finally acted.

And the monuments designated were often large areas in order to protect landscapes of unusual value. Dinosaur National Monument went from an original designation of 80 acres of dinosaur graveyard to 210,000 acres of incredible desert scenery and river canyons (keeping the bones in there as well, of course). Local politicians objected and, in this case, the opposition has prevented Dinosaur from being upgraded to a national park. The monument is a world-class destination, nevertheless.

The list of what the Antiquities Act protected here in Utah continues:

Natural Bridges, 1908

Rainbow Bridge, 1910.

Timpanogos Cave, 1922.

Cedar Breaks, 1933.

The political story of Bears Ears is no different. We needed presidential action under the Antiquities Act to preserve this internationally significant landscape, and to give it the meaningful protection it deserves. Future generations will thank us; they will look back in regret and despair if we instead allow Bears Ears National Monument to be erased.

I live in Vernal, the gateway town to Dinosaur National Monument, which forms our eastern skyline. Each day, as the sun rises over Split Mountain, I am grateful all over again for the Antiquities Act. To hamstring or abolish it would be a tragedy.

Tom Elder

Tom Elder, Vernal, is a retired science teacher whose main hobby is walking in the desert.