The Antiquities Act can help President Biden fight congressional gridlock, slow climate change, and honor Indigenous communities

Jun 8, 2022

By Kate Groetzinger

America’s bedrock conservation law is even more relevant today than when it passed 116 years ago

Moon House in Bears Ears National Monument, BLM/Flickr

Today is the 116th anniversary of the Antiquities Act. Often thought of as the most important conservation law in the history of the United States, the Antiquities Act authorizes the president to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest — including landscapes — by designating them as national monuments.

When President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law on June 8, 1906, his intention was to allow presidents to act quickly to protect America’s natural and cultural resources, many of which were endangered by looting and mining at the time. Little did he know the law would become even more important over the next century, as Congress has grown more divided.

Throughout the past century, anti-conservation detractors have bemoaned the use of the Antiquities Act to protect precious landscapes and cultural resources like the Grand Canyon and Chaco Canyon. However, these detractors are always proven wrong in the court of public opinion over time.

Take the case of Olympic National Monument, designated as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. Logging companies threw a fit over the designation, and state politicians came out in support of the logging industry. The park now brings in over three million visitors, creates over 3,000 local jobs, adds over $300 million dollars to the state economy every year, and is beloved by residents and local politicians alike.

Unfortunately, conservation is slowing down in many Western states, despite overwhelming support for the protection of public lands. According to a 2022 Colorado College poll, 80 percent of Westerners support creating new national parks, national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and tribal protected areas.

Yet the rate of conservation in states like Arizona and Colorado has slowed tremendously over the past decade. This is due to a dysfunctional Congress that will block a bill even if it has the support of its state delegation, like the CORE Act in Colorado and efforts to withdraw the land around the Grand Canyon from new mining claims in Arizona. Luckily, President Joe Biden can directly respond to Western communities who want to see their public lands protected using the Antiquities Act.

The Antiquities Act can also help the Biden administration reach its goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. land and waters by 2030. Across the globe, biodiversity is on sharp decline. We’re losing a football field’s worth of nature every 30 seconds. Conserving 30 percent of U.S. land and waters will help slow this decline, as well as fight climate change — and protecting public land in the U.S. from extraction and grazing is an important part of reaching this goal. National monument designations emphasize the preservation of public land for future generations over short term exploitation, as is the status quo on much of our country’s public land.

Finally, President Biden can use the Antiquities Act to honor local conservation efforts and Indigenous communities. He has already made a good start, restoring protections for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, after President Trump stripped protections for around 80% of the monument.

But the president’s efforts need to go further. He should listen to the Fort Mojave Tribe in southern Nevada, which is calling on him to protect Avi Kwa Ame, or Spirit Mountain, as a national monument. He should also listen to the community of El Paso, Texas, which is calling on him to designate Castner Range as a monument.

There’s no reason to wait on these designations. This is what the Antiquities Act was built for.