Of President Donald Trump’s 66 executive actions, his order to evaluate the national monuments created in the last 20 years is the most promising. By their nature, most executive orders flirt with or completely embrace presidential overreach, weakening our system of checks and balances. In contrast, Trump’s order could rein in presidential authority by transforming the Antiquities Act from an executive bludgeon into the tool of preservation its authors intended. The president can correct the egregious actions of his predecessors by reducing or rescinding expansive national monuments.
Since 1906, when Congress gave presidents the authority to protect archaeological sites under the Antiquities Act, monuments have grown exponentially. According to National Park Service data, newly designated monuments averaged just 15,573 acres in 1906. National monuments designated in 2016 averaged 739,645 acres – more than 47 times the size of those created 110 years ago. This development flies in the face of explicit language within the Act confining designations to “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”
During his eight years in office, President Barack Obama created 29 national monuments and expanded five more. In the last year of his presidency, Obama quadrupled the size of a national monument off the coast of Hawaii, expanding it to more than twice the size of Texas. In Maine, he designated the 87,500-acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. And in my home state of Utah, Obama created the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.
Utah is all too familiar with the devastating effects of unilateral national monument designations. Twenty years ago, President Bill Clinton designated the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument despite pleas from the people of Garfield County. His presidential proclamation decimated a once-thriving ranching community – pushing cattle off the range and forcing cattlemen from the land their families had worked for generations. In 2015, Garfield County finally buckled and declared an economic and scholastic state of emergency as its residents left in droves to seek jobs elsewhere.
Such outcomes are inevitable when one person – far removed from the land and people who know it best – can dictate how millions of acres will be managed. Instead of collaborating with those most impacted by land management decisions, presidents from both sides of the political aisle bend to the enticements of legacy-building and the demands of environmental groups. They treat rural communities as little more than collateral damage.
No longer are national monuments about protecting specific historical and cultural sites. Instead, political gamesmanship, outdoor recreation, climate change, and other motivations inconsistent with the original intent of the Antiquities Act rule the designation process. Repurposing a law to fit one individual’s agenda is wrong. No one wins when the executive branch ignores laws with impunity – not rural communities, and not the antiquities themselves. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke should set a new standard for national monument designations by consulting with the locals to utilize their knowledge of the land. This collaborative approach will protect antiquities and the environment while meeting the needs of area residents and the local economy. It’s time for presidents to once again use the Antiquities Act as it was intended and end the abuse of executive power. Trump’s executive order is a good start – but it is just a start.