It’s time for President Biden to define his conservation legacy and protect lands now
In the early 1900s, Congress granted presidents the power to designate national monuments to conserve important natural and cultural sites through the Antiquities Act of 1906. Since then, 17 presidents from both parties used the landmark law to designate 158 national monuments, protecting some of America’s most iconic landscapes and historic sites. Read the stories of five of those national monuments below and learn how actions that were initially controversial have become successes that draw visitors from all over the world. Many national monuments have become the country’s most celebrated national parks after later being re-designated by Congress, including Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Acadia, and Olympic National Parks.
Now, President Biden has an opportunity to define our modern conservation legacy and join the ranks of our greatest conservation leaders. He has already issued an executive order outlining an initiative to protect 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030. However, he has yet to take action to follow up on this commitment, even though a supermajority, 86% of voters, in the United States support the bold conservation goal; 84% of Westerners support creating new protected areas such as national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and tribal protected areas; and 77% of Westerners support restoring national monument protections to lands in the West.
National monuments created under the Antiquities Act aren’t just popular, they’re also beneficial to local economies. Research has found that national monuments often increase the number of businesses and jobs in nearby communities. Another study of 17 Western national monuments found that local economies expanded following monument designation, and found growth in economic indicators such as population, employment, personal income, and per-capita income.
The time to protect more lands is now, and there are awe-inspiring outdoor places worthy of further protection under the Antiquities Act all over the country. Learn about some of America’s iconic landscapes that could be protected, including the Castner Range, Owyhee Canyonlands, and Avi Kwa Ame (Spirit Mountain), in this interactive report. Or, check out locally-led conservation efforts to help safeguard 30% of our lands, waters, and ocean by 2030 and ultimately prevent the collapse of the planet’s natural systems.
Stories of our conservation legacy
In the second half of the 19th century, commercial interests coalesced in opposition to efforts to protect the Grand Canyon, including mining prospectors, cattle grazers, and railroad companies. The Williams Sun, a newspaper at the time, wrote of protecting the Grand Canyon as, “A fiendish and diabolical scheme… the fate of Arizona depends exclusively upon the development of her mineral resources.” However, in 1908 President Teddy Roosevelt had the courage to designate the Grand Canyon as one of America’s first national monuments. A decade later, the Grand Canyon was declared a national park, and today the Grand Canyon is perhaps one of America’s most iconic landmarks, drawing visitors, revenue, and jobs to local communities.
Bryce Canyon’s scenic wonders have drawn visitors for over a century. However, expanding development in the region began to cause negative impacts on the landscape. It was the governor of Utah and the Utah State Legislature that lobbied for national protection of the area, recognizing the importance of Bryce as a driver of tourism and a national treasure. In 1923, President Warren G. Harding established Bryce Canyon as a national monument to “unusual scenic beauty, scientific interest, and importance.” The site was redesignated and transferred to the National Park Service in 1928, and has since become a major attraction in the region.
Like many now-lauded conservation successes, Grand Teton National Park was created despite intense controversy and anti-protection sentiments. In the early 1900s, suggestions of protecting the Tetons were met by fears of Idaho sheep grazers, Jackson Hole businessmen, and ranchers in the surrounding area. Although an original bill to protect the Tetons died as a result, a small part of the park was designated by Congress a decade later in 1929. In the years that followed, a contingent of conservationists worked to ensure that the fledgling park would eventually safeguard the entire ecosystem. Although bitter hostility challenged efforts by John D. Rockefeller and others to preserve the valley of Jackson Hole, President Franklin D. Roosevelt boldly created the Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, ensuring that their efforts did not go to waste. In 1950, the original park and FDR monument were united into today’s Grand Teton National Park. Grand Teton is now one of the country’s most popular national parks, driving a booming outdoor recreation industry in the surrounding region.
In 1996 President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act to preserve part of south-eastern Utah—Grand Staircase-Escalante—as one of the country’s most remote areas. The region is a geological and paleontological site of interest, in addition to holding cultural value to multiple indigenous peoples. Two decades later, in 2016, President Barack Obama took a bold step to recognize tribes in the region and protected the sacred landscape of Bears Ears as a national monument. Bears Ears is home to over 100,000 archeological sites, and protection of the ancestral lands has strong support from 30 different tribes as part of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
However, both Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument were later drastically reduced in a controversial and unpopular move by President Trump in 2017. Although President Biden signed an executive order calling for a review of the reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has since recommended the restoration of these monuments, neither has yet been restored. There is strong support within the state of Utah for both monuments, with 74% of Utahans in support of restoring national monument protections to lands in the West. Over 200 days since President Biden entered office, we’re still waiting for action to restore both monuments to their rightful place in America’s conservation legacy and respect the vision and courage of his predecessors.
Today, we look toward the future. Our question for President Biden is, what will our new conservation legacy look like?
Hear about iconic places that could be protected across the country, the many ways in which the United States can move toward protecting 30×30, and the history of our protected lands.