Destroying a Great American Tradition: The Antiquities Act

Crawford Arch, Utah

Crawford Arch, Utah

Originally published at

There was a bill quietly drafted and proposed in the Utah legislature that strangely didn’t get a lot of attention. It was S.C.R. 4, called the Concurrent Resolution Regarding the Creation of National Monuments. It is a bill that seeks to limit the President’s power in designating national monuments. Right now it is with the Office of Legislative Research and General Council. If the bill gets approved, it will be taken to Congress.

It is no surprise that Representative Mike Noel is the House sponsor, but it was a surprise that our own Senator Steve Urquhart was the primary sponsor. This looks like a scorched earth tactic being used by Utah politicians against their enemy, the President of the United States, and because of the nature of what they are seeking, us, the American public. But let me clarify that it is not aimed at all presidents, just Democratic ones. Apparently Republican presidents just like to sell our land while Democrats like to protect it – which is a threat to Utah politicians.

If you are not familiar with Representative Mike Noel from Kanab, let me acquaint you with him. He has fought air quality standards. He has tried to shut down the Department of Environmental Quality (and he is on the Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environmental Quality Appropriations Committee of all things). And of course he supports transferring public lands from the federal government to the state as well as keeping every trail, track, and road on public land designated a road. While he almost let the Department of Environmental Quality die due to lack of funding in a grand standing stunt about not taking federal dollars, he will take those federal dollars when it comes to his water district.

Since he’s a rancher, farmer, and water manager it all makes sense. Noel’s stance on protecting the environment equates in his mind to “hating his children and grandchildren” who just want jobs. What jobs you ask? Mining and drilling jobs. Apparently Noel has not weighed clean air, land, and water, or health, into the equation.

So what is a scorched earth policy? It’s a military strategy which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy.

This might sound a little extreme but let me explain.

Following the 1978 proposal to list the San Diego mesa mint on the endangered species list in California, a developer who owned 279 acres on which he planned to build 1,429 houses became worried that the development would be derailed if the plant got listed. His concerns were not invalid as the Veteran’s Administration who was providing the loan said it would be unable to approve the loan for the development if the plant was listed. A year later just days before the plant got listed, the developer engaged in the scorched earth strategy by bulldozing the plants. And his loan went through.

What Urquhart and Noel are trying to do is usurp the President’s powers under the Antiquities Act to preemptively limit the President in being able to propose national monuments in Utah before he leaves office. This is not, however, a novel idea. Wyoming and Alaska both did something similar, which I am sure Urquhart is using as precedent, but I’m not sure it’s worked out for either of those states in a positive way. But it would in Utah because Utah not only has lands that should be protected, but it also has mineral resources in those spectacular lands – which means that if those lands are not protected, the negative impacts will be huge.

All that being said, the President has unfettered power to designate monuments on public lands; and incidentally, the Antiquities Act was used on private lands as well. In the eastern U.S. the Act was used under eminent domain to protect battlefields from the Civil War. But the Antiquities Act also provided for protection of ancient Indian ruins, and lands for scientific research, and it is very broad.

So what Urquhart and Noel want to do is make sure that doesn’t happen in Utah again without Utah’s approval. They want to ensure that the multi-use policy of the BLM continues at Cedar Mesa and the San Rafael Swell because they are worried the President will designate both locations as National Monuments. To put it in plainly, they want to make sure that mining, drilling, and grazing will continue to be allowed on those lands. But it needs to be stated that while those lands reside within Utah’s borders, that land is owned by the Federal Government to be managed for the people of the United States as a trust, or further protected under monument status if the President deems it prudent.

The Antiquities Act was signed into law in 1906 by President Teddy Roosevelt and started the preservation of historic sites and iconic landscapes. Ironically enough, it came about because of vandalism at ancient Indian ruin sites – much like what has been happening in the Four Corners area, and specifically Blanding, Utah, where a federal raid happened in recent years because locals keep digging up ancient artifacts on public lands. What early American politicians and scientists were conceded about was the prospect of history being erased by vandals and development. But the Act did not just set out to preserve ancient historic sites, it extended to locations with scenic and scientific value as well.

Where the streams play

Where the streams play

According to an article in the Natural Resources Journal by Richard West Sellars, “Certain parts of the public lands, mainly those that were scenically spectacular, came to be perceived as possessing special qualities and values beyond purely economic factors and therefore worthy of being retained by the federal government as a public trust, not to be disposed of and treated in the customary ways. Direct federal intervention that set aside these select places for preservation, and then actively managed them for the general public good, arrived most emphatically on March 1, 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park—more than two million acres reserved from sale or other disposition and dedicated to the “benefit and enjoyment of the people.””

The first designations under the Antiquities Act were the Devil’s Tower in Montana and the Grand Canyon, originally a National Monument. So you see that even before the Antiquities Act was signed into law, the country was already protecting landscapes they did not want to see destroyed. Without this law and the actions of forward thinking people, many of our most precious and valuable places would not have been protected or set aside for everyone’s enjoyment and use. They may have been razed for mining, developed as premier subdivisions, or fractured and shot through for drilling. And what a travesty would that have been.

Can you imagine someone wanting to drill for oil at the Grand Canyon? Or mine for coal? Well, imagine it because there are people who would and there are politicians willing to do their bidding in the name of jobs. But it’s not just jobs, its also development and the short-term rewards that come with it.

But again, that was something the Antiquities Act sought to curb, contrary to what our local politicians would like to believe. While they may think monument designation is just Democratic presidents pandering to special interest groups, history has much more to say about it than that. From the same article in the Natural Resources Journal, the early establishment of National Parks was done “in an attempt to save especially majestic landscapes from the onslaught of European-American settlement in the West and exploitation of resources on public lands.”

Sound familiar? Well, it should because that is exactly what our politicians are aiming to do with their repeated attempts to wrest control from the Federal Government.

This proposed legislation by Sen. Urquhart and Rep. Noel is just another fragment of the transfer of public lands mentality here in Utah, all wrapped up in the same old grudge over Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the large protected piece of land filled with mineral rich coal and gas deposits that Utah politicians, and apparently locals, are still seething over. And they are still trying to get their hands on it by undoing the monument designation. They believe that President Clinton took that land away without any consideration for the local people or economy. Which might be how it felt to them, but which is largely an ignorant view of monument designations. Protecting land is part of our national and cultural heritage – it is one of the best policy decisions we as a nation have ever made. It was one of the few policies aimed at the future rather than short-sighted instant gratification or the almighty dollar.

As for Escalante being a frivolous designation aimed to appease environmentalists, I would beg to differ.

I listened to Bruce Babbitt speak just a couple of months ago in Salt Lake City at the Winter OR show where he joked about traveling around the Grand Staircase area and seeing his effigy marked in many locations as he spoke to locals about the monument designation. Being told and considered but not getting your way is not the same as being tricked. But beyond that, have you been paying attention to the discoveries of dinosaur fossils found in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument? If locals had had their way, those fossils never would have been found to enlighten our understanding of the prehistoric world. Or they would have been available for seeing amidst oil rigs and mining operations. And who knows, if they had gotten those leases for extractive industries, it’s possible those fossils would have been destroyed forever.

What Noel and Urquhart are trying to do is throw our pearls to swine.

Not only are they ignoring a grand American tradition, they are trying to limit it from continuing. They want the states and local populations to have a say in monument designations because they want to stop the designations. They want monuments to be as small as possible, which apparently they think has not been happening. But those acreage recommendations usually come from organizations and scientists who are aware of the potential, and therefore, are probably are as small as required, regardless of how large. Those acres are not determined willy-nilly, or in a manner meant to hurt local populations.

According to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, “State lawmakers are declaring grazing and mineral extraction the “highest and best use” for Cedar Mesa and the San Rafael Swell.”

In other words, they want to mine, and drill, and graze is some of the most spectacular places left un-touched in Utah rather than protect them. Senator Urquhart’s “resolution acknowledges Cedar Mesa and the San Rafael Swell are worthy of protection, but it claims “vast tracts of land” in both should be open to continued grazing and “environmentally sensitive” energy and mineral development.”

First of all, what exactly is “environmentally friendly” mineral development? That sounds like an oxymoron to me. Since when is tearing the earth up, leveling mountains, or pumping poison into the ground and water table environmentally friendly? Because that’s what we are talking about. And second, how much grass is out in those locations? How much damage do those cattle exert – or are they environmentally friendly as well? I know it’s massively unpopular to say this, but cattle don’t belong in the west. They belong in grass-rich, rain-rich locations. Fragile desert ecosystems cannot support them. And neither can the taxpayer incidentally. But the interesting thing is that anything allowed on those lands now will more than likely be grand-fathered in. So what is it really that Urquhart and Noel are after?

I recently saw a Big 5 commercial. Have you seen it? I’m not sure if it runs in Utah, but it runs in other states. It’s a commercial about our big five national parks meant to drive tourism to our state. Can you imagine making a commercial of the big 5 extractive locations? Please, come to our state where we have torn up the earth, polluted it, and destroyed it. Isn’t it beautiful? 

Most boom and bust towns have survived the bust after an extractive industry lays waste to the area and leaves town by promoting recreation and tourism. People recreate in and travel to beautiful, unspoiled places. If you destroy those places, they will be forever marred.

If Urquhart and Noel get their way, and others like them such as Ken Ivory, our most treasured assets will be for sale to the highest and most powerful bidders and we will be the losers. These politicians are the very reason we need the Antiquities Act because they don’t seem to see much beyond their own noses. It is usually those on the outside looking in that see things differently and with a wider lens, which is why public lands are owned by the Federal Government. Without such checks and balances as the Antiquities Act, local people in local places without that wider view would be able to run rough-shod of every piece of land with the potential for dollars and votes.

Valuable real estate

Valuable real estate

It’s not evil, it’s just human nature to look out for your own self-interest. But self-interest on the local level cannot trump the greater good for the American public, no matter how much Utahn’s resent it. Trying to get around the Antiquities Act looks as slimy and greedy as tricking people into believing the government was under some obligation to give public lands to the states. Some things are worth protecting and do have priceless value that cannot be measured on the stock exchange. Places with scientific potential, cultural artifacts, and pristine and stunning landscapes are some of them. Instead of trying to undermine one of the best things this country has been doing, why not join those who are trying to progress and pursue sustainable energy and economic policies rather than cling to the out-dated industrial economic model?

As U.S. Congressman John F. Lacey said in 1901 when he proposed the Antiquities Act, “The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.”

The Antiquities Act is as much about controlling our baser instincts as it is about preserving places of natural beauty, wonder, and history. Furthermore, places like Cedar Mesa have spiritual significance and is like a natural temple.

Joseph H. Suina, descendant of the ancient Puebloan people who lived on Northern New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau said this, “But at the same time, those places are now occupied by a higher form of life, if you will, the spirits of our ancestors….So these places for us are sacred, living places….that’s one of the vital connections that we have that’s really not captured in any way by archaeologists, in any shape or form.”

These landscapes, battlefields, and historical sites are living places which anyone who has ever visited any number of our parks, lands, or monuments in the west or across the country can attest.

I for one, hope President Obama does designate both places as National Monuments. While it may not be the majority of Utahns, there is a sizable minority here and outside of Utah who would celebrate such designations, and future generations of the world, not just Utah, will reap the benefits.


Posted on March 23, 2015, in Nature and the Environment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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