Last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke concluded his review of 27 national monuments and passed along his recommendations to President Donald Trump. During his review, Zinke surveyed some of our nation’s most spectacular landscapes, archaeological treasures and natural wonders. His visits were warmly welcomed by the American people, who enthusiastically shared the beauty and history of the places they call home. And because these places and people left a lasting impression, Zinke’s executive summary demonstrates he took to heart the need to reform a troubling trend.
A new analysis conducted by the Coalition for Self-Government in the West shows that recent presidents are breaking from historical norms and placing significantly more land under national monument status than their predecessors. Since the Antiquities Act was passed in 1906, 16 presidents have used executive authority under the Antiquities Act to create or enlarge national monuments. With the stroke of a pen, presidents have set aside areas of less than an acre to over 280 million acres. Although there have been fluctuations in the size of national monument designations and expansions over the past 111 years, the last 40 years have seen a significant hike in the amounts of land and water being designated.
In a comparison of all 16 presidential administrations that have utilized the Antiquities Act, average designations and expansions under the last eight administrations were 89 times larger than those of the first eight. These expansive designations are mind-boggling. Instead of designating tens of thousands of acres, recent presidents are now setting aside areas in the hundreds of millions.
Ulterior motives are largely pushing this trend. The designation process — instead of focusing on protecting and preserving historic sites and scientific objects as outlined in the Antiquities Act — is driven by political gamesmanship, climate change, presidential legacies, corporate interests and outdoor recreation. No one wins when these motivations force expansive designations — not local economies, and not our nation’s historic and cultural resources.
Large national monuments are inconsistent with the original intent of the Antiquities Act. The law was enacted to protect specific archaeological sites and scientific objects — confining national monuments to the smallest area possible. This inconsistency can actually put historic and cultural resources at increased risk of desecration and destruction.
The publicity associated with national monuments often draws flocks of visitors to an area. This imposes a much higher demand on financially strapped federal land managers — who already struggle to meet preservation and infrastructure needs — and potentially endangers our antiquities.
While increased tourism can provide some economic benefit to rural communities, it comes with trade-offs when national monuments are so expansive, such as restricting multiple-use management policies that could promise a stronger, more diversified economy. Tourism can generate net economic benefits over the long term as part of a multiple-use management strategy, but it can weaken economic resilience when it is the sole economic driver.
The Trump administration has a historic opportunity to place a check on the trend of expansive national monuments and to “right-size” the egregious misuses of the Antiquities Act. Its review of previous designations was long overdue, and that review can serve as a stark warning for future presidents to judiciously employ their authority under the act. It is time to restore the protection of our national treasures as the focal point of the Antiquities Act instead of bowing to self-serving and shortsighted political and economic interests that endanger our national treasures and threaten rural communities.
Matthew Anderson is the director of the Coalition for Self-Government in the West, a project of Sutherland Institute.