Three years ago this month (January), then-President George W. Bush invoked his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish three national monuments protecting 125 million acres of islands, atolls, coral reefs, and marine waters that are chock full of an amazing variety of sea creatures, crazy-interesting geological formations, and archaeological treasures. Including a monument covering the northwestern Hawaiian Islands that he established in 2006, Bush used the Antiquities Act to protect nearly 215 million acres of U.S. land and territorial waters, more than all of his predecessors combined.
The Antiquities Act is one of America’s lesser known conservation laws, but has proved to be a remarkably effective tool for protecting natural and historic treasures on America’s public lands and in marine waters under federal jurisdiction. Enacted in 1906, the law has been used by 15 presidents from both political parties to protect great American places, as majestic as the Grand Canyon and as historically important as Thomas Edison’s laboratory.
Whenever a president has invoked the Antiquities Act to protect public lands that some believe would be better used for extracting commodities or for other commercial uses, proposals pop up in Congress to weaken the law, usually by requiring congressional approval of monuments established by executive order. Passing such legislation would be shortsighted. The power of the Antiquities Act is that it gives presidents authority to move fast, to grant immediate protection to special places in the public domain that could be spoiled if hasty development decisions were made.
In nearly all cases, the decision to protect has stood the test of time. Who today believes that Theodore Roosevelt was wrong to protect the Grand Canyon rather than let it be used for mineral extraction and hotel development?
The Antiquities Act has served America well. As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.