President Trump’s reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments are unsurprisingly controversial. Local communities that have decried the monuments’ effects on their economies and livelihoods are sure to rejoice; monument advocates will rue the loss. At this point, both sides should agree that the president holds too much power over national monuments. The Antiquities Act may have served an important purpose in its early history, but now that the American West is populated and antiquities are preserved by a smattering of federal and state laws, the time has come for the Antiquities Act to retire.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 was the brainchild of an assortment of lobbyists from American historical and anthropological associations as well as the Department of the Interior. Anthropologists and historians expressed concern that the rate of Western expansion would outpace Congress’ ability to protect significant areas. The Department of the Interior voiced similar concerns for scenic and scientifically unique sites.
Their lobbying efforts paid off, and Congress allowed the president to convert any federal land of “historic or scientific interest” into national monuments. To assure Western states the act would not be abused, legislators added the stipulation that monuments must be “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Currently clocking in at only five sentences, the act doesn’t offer much more guidance than that.