On its 117th anniversary, the Antiquities Act continues to shape America’s conservation story

Jun 7, 2023

By Lilly Bock-Brownstein

June 8 marks the 117th anniversary of one of America’s bedrock conservation laws, the Antiquities Act. Since it first became law in 1906, 18 presidents of both parties have used the Antiquities Act to designate 161 national monuments — many of which are now national parks. The Act grants the president the authority to permanently protect places with scientific or historical importance, including iconic American symbols like the Statue of Liberty and landscapes like the Grand Canyon. Originally established to protect archaeological sites from looting and vandalism, it has been used to protect and preserve a wide variety of historic places, natural landscapes, and culturally significant sites.

In its 117-year history, the Antiquities Act has been used to protect important Western landscapes such as Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Joshua Tree, Denali, Bears Ears, and dozens of others. On some occasions, national monuments designated via the Antiquities Act have been given national park status by Congress, including Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, and Olympic National Parks. The Act has also been used to protect important historic and cultural sites, including Thomas Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey, César Chávez’s home in California, and the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Most recently, President Joe Biden used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate Camp Hale-Continental Divide in Colorado, Avi Kwa Ame in southern Nevada, and Castner Range near El Paso, Texas as national monuments.

Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

Many of these designations faced legal opposition by those who wanted to keep these landscapes open to mining, drilling, and other forms of extraction and development. In the case of Bears Ears National Monument, designated by President Barack Obama in 2016, lawsuits over the designation continue to this day. Yet legal challenges to the Antiquities Act have always failed at the Supreme Court or in lower courts. Despite the limited legal opposition, Americans overwhelmingly support presidents’ use of the Antiquities Act to protect landscapes. Colorado College’s 2023 Conservation in the West poll found that 84 percent of Western voters support presidents continuing to use their power to protect existing public lands as national monuments.

As Congress grows more divided, the Antiquities Act is a critical tool that the Biden administration can use as it strives to reach the national goal of protecting 30 percent of U.S. land and waters by 2030. The designations of Camp Hale-Continental Divide, Avi Kwa Ame, and Castner Range National Monuments were critically important moves for conservation, honoring Native American history, and providing equitable recreation opportunities to all Americans. And there are many more unique and vulnerable Western landscapes that are ready for permanent protection under the Antiquities Act.

Meet the three newest Antiquities Act designations

Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument

Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument. Photo: Ecoflight

President Biden’s first use of the Antiquities Act took place in October 2022 with the designation of Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in Colorado. The monument encompasses more than 53,800 acres and includes the Tenmile Range, a mountain range with stunning views that is prized by hikers and rock climbers. During World War II, Camp Hale housed up to 17,000 troops in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. At an elevation of 9,200 feet, the site was ideal for training in skiing, snowshoeing, and rock climbing — skills that helped the soldiers fight Axis forces in Italy. After the war, some of the same soldiers who toiled at what they called “Camp Hell” returned to the region to help launch Colorado’s booming ski industry. The area also provides critical habitat for wildlife, including elk, deer, lynx, and migratory songbirds.

Avi Kwa Ame National Monument

Avi Kwa Ame National Monument. Photo: Ken Lund

Avi Kwa Ame National Monument represents President Biden’s largest protected area designated under the Antiquities Act, with 500,000 acres added toward his 30×30 initiative when he designated it in March 2023. The area is home to an array of desert species such as desert bighorn sheep and Joshua trees. Avi Kwa Ame is the Mojave name for Spirit Mountain, a peak in Southern Nevada that is considered sacred by the Fort Mojave Tribe, one of the leaders of the campaign to protect the area surrounding Avi Kwa Ame. The area is considered sacred by ten Yuman-speaking Tribes, as well as the Hopi and Chemehuevi Paiute.

Castner Range National Monument

Castner Range National Monument. Photo: Mark Clune

Castner Range National Monument was designated alongside Avi Kwa Ame in March 2023. It covers nearly 7,000 acres in the Franklin Mountains, which border the city of El Paso. Castner Range is a former military weapons testing site owned by the U.S. Department of Defense. It borders Franklin Mountains State Park, a popular recreation destination. The Range is also a biodiversity hotspot, serving as habitat for hundreds of species of Chihuahuan Desert plants including the stunning Mexican poppy, plus many reptiles, birds, and mammals. The community of El Paso has been fighting for more than 50 years to gain access to this landscape for the enjoyment of its residents, as well as greater protections for the wildlife and unique flora that depend on the area.

Could one of these landscapes be the next Antiquities Act designation?

Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon

House Rock Valley within the proposed Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument. Photo: Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity

Members of the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, alongside Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva and Senator Kyrsten Sinema, are calling for President Biden to designate Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument. The proposed monument covers over 1.1 million acres of land adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park, which was originally designated under the Antiquities Act in 1906. Designating the proposed area as a monument would permanently protect the area’s water, wildlife, sacred spaces, and ancestral homelands from new uranium mining and would honor more than a dozen Tribes’ cultural ties to the area. Baaj Nwaavjo means “where tribes roam” for the Havasupai Tribe, and I’tah Kukveni means “our footprints” for the Hopi Tribe.

Molok Luyuk (Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument Expansion)

Molok Luyuk (Condor Ridge), the proposed expansion of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. Photo: Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

When President Barack Obama designated the 330,000-acre Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in 2015, he protected a landscape rich with ecological diversity and recreational opportunities in northern California. But nearly 14,000 acres of public lands just east of the monument remain in need of greater protection. The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation is asking President Biden to expand Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument to include the 13,753 acres of ridgeline known to the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation as Molok Luyuk (pronounced Ma-lok Lou-yoke), meaning “condor ridge” in the Patwin language, an homage to the birds that once flew there.

Dolores River Canyonlands

The Dolores River in Western Colorado. Photo: Center for Western Priorities

The Dolores River Canyon is a contiguous, diverse landscape that is part of a broader region known as the Colorado Plateau, and an important tributary of the Colorado River system, which provides water for 40 million people living in the Southwest. The river starts in the San Juan mountains of southwestern Colorado and flows through red rock canyons and Ponderosa pine forests before entering an arid desert habitat where it’s one of the only water sources in the region, making the river corridor a hotspot for wildlife. The river anchors a broader landscape of vulnerable public lands threatened by uranium mining, oil and gas development, and unmanaged recreation. Drought and overuse pose an existential threat to this fragile riparian corridor, and more protection is needed to sustain the Dolores River landscape into the future. Local groups like the Dolores River Boating Advocates, the Colorado Wildlands Project, and others are working to find collaborative solutions to protect the Dolores River and the surrounding landscape.

President Biden designating Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in 2022. Photo: Aaron Weiss, Center for Western Priorities

With a divided Congress, the Antiquities Act is a practical and powerful means to permanently protect America’s public lands. President Biden has the opportunity to answer the call of Tribes, conservation groups, and the American people to preserve vulnerable landscapes for future generations, and to meet the critically important 30×30 goal. Through the use of the Antiquities Act, Biden can leave an enduring legacy of conservation and ensure a vibrant and diverse natural heritage for future generations of Americans.