Theodore Roosevelt, Donald Trump & The Antiquities Act

“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.”
– Speech by Theodore Roosevelt in Osawatomie, Kansas, August 31, 1910.

(Update: On 12/3/2017, the President sharply reduced the size of two monuments (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante) in Utah by some two million acres, the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history.)

President Roosevelt signed into law the Antiquities Act on June 8, 1906. Last month, the current president issued an executive order that could endanger this Act and the national monuments and land it protects.

Teddy and Donald walk into a bar…

Or maybe a barbershop. The 26th president, like the 45th, was a teetotaler. Beyond this, these men would share few respectable similarities. Small talk sparked by curiosity over dress, mannerisms, and other generational disparities would eventually devolve into a conversation characterized by either complete confusion or utter fury. It could even end in fisticuffs

TR: Good afternoon, sir.

DT: Hey, Teddy. Mind if I call you ‘Teddy’? I think you’re the greatest president ever, I mean, one of the best ever, no doubt, just great. Definitely a top 10 president.

TR: Well thank you. I like to think I fulfilled my presidential duties admirably.

DT: I mean, your face was carved into a mountain.

TR: Was it? That’s fantastic.

DT: Yeah.

TR: (adjusts his Panama and gazes curiously at the president’s head) Say, that’s an interesting hat you’re wearing. Is that a yellow-bellied marmot pelt?

DT: (feels head uncertainly) Uh, no, Teddy. This is my hair.

TR: (adjusts spectacles, looks confused) Hmm. Anyway, as you may know, I am an avid sportsman and hunter, but I’ve always had a humble respect and admiration for all species. In fact, I take the most pride in preserving our nation’s natural beauty. Tell me, Donald. It’s Donald, right? Or Donny? What are you doing to protect the beautiful lands of this country?

Soon, TR might find out that DT was challenging one of his signature laws. This discovery, along with the intellectual deficit in the conversation and the notably short tempers of both men, would end the conversation and probably lead to a brawl, or at least to a physical exchange reminiscent of a scene from the Three Stooges where an infuriated Moe chastises a clueless Curly.

Origins of The Antiquities Act

The first law to establish that archaeological sites on public lands are irreplaceable public resources, the Antiquities Act, obligates federal agencies to preserve for present and future generations the historic, scientific, commemorative, and cultural values of the archaeological and historic sites and structures on public lands. It also authorizes the President to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments.

The Act established the first general legal protection of cultural and natural resources in the United States and also set important precedents, including the assertion of a broad public interest in archaeology on public lands, as well as support for the care and management of archaeological sites, collections, and information.

Presidential Authority

When Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law, he created 18 monuments, including the Grand Canyon and Olympic National Park in Washington, totaling more than a million acres.

Pursuant to the Act, the President may reserve as “part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” The President can make national monuments only from land already controlled by the federal government, and the act generally does not change how the land is used. For example, the Act doesn’t disturb existing leases for mining, ranching, drilling or logging already on land to be made into a national monument; however, new leases probably won’t be allowed.

Most legal scholars and historians agree that the Antiquities Act, despite a broad mandate, does not give the president the authority to revoke previous national monument designations. Congress, however, can convert a national monument into a national park, which it has done many times.

According to data from the National Park Service, fifteen other presidents from both parties have designated a total of 170 national monuments, including marine monuments. In December 2016, President Obama declared Bears Ears a national monument, protecting its 1.4 million acres of federal land from looting and development. The rugged Bears Ears region of southern Utah boasts ancient cliff dwellings, rare wildlife, stunning canyon lands and the highest concentration of ancient cultural sites in the country. Its intricate petroglyphs, ceremonial sites and prehistoric ruins remain places of pilgrimage for Native American tribes.


The night sky illuminates a wall of petroglyphs at Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. Photograph by Marc Toso

President Trump’s Executive Order

Last month, the president issued an executive order directing the Department of the Interior to conduct a review of all Presidential designations or expansions of designations of national monuments under the Antiquities Act. The review applies to designations or expansions made since January 1, 1996 of greater than 100,000 acres, or where the Secretary determines that the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders. It requires the Secretary of the Interior to reconsider federal protections for the recently designated Bears Ears National Monument and 26 other national monuments. Considering a list of factors specified in the executive order, Secretary Zinke will decide the fate of Bears Ears first. The administration has opened public comment until May 27.

 Legacy of The Antiquities Act

The effects of President Roosevelt’s law are still felt. A great achievement of conservation and preservation efforts in the United States, the Antiquities Act created the basis for the federal government’s ability to protect archaeological sites from looting, vandalism, and overconsumption. In shaping public policy to protect a broad array of cultural and natural resources, the impact of the Act is unmatched.

Thus, ensuring its legacy while countering the actions of its detractors is important for numerous reasons. The Act provides legal protection for a vast territory of beautiful, historic land in America. It facilitates cooperation between the federal government and Indian tribes, as well as inter-tribal cooperation (the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Ute Indian tribes came together to ask President Obama to designate the site as a national monument.) It also brings increased tourism to wilderness areas, which directly supports local businesses and state economies. Most importantly, in the words of President Roosevelt, it encourages all of us to work together to preserve our “glorious heritage” and “good fortune” for future generations to enjoy.

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