Preserving monumental landscapes under the Antiquities Act

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Author: Christine A. Klein
Date: Sept. 1, 2002
From: Cornell Law Review(Vol. 87, Issue 6)
Publisher: Cornell University
Document Type: Article
Length: 31,087 words
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This Article examines the Antiquities Act, a 1906 statute that delegates authority to the President to establish national monuments on federal lands for the protection of prehistoric structures and relics. This modest statute, originally a scant one page in length, has set off a century of intermittent controversy that its drafters could not have anticipated. Although Congress probably intended that the statute merely protect archaeological ruins from looting by treasure hunters, presidents quickly began to utilize the statute to preserve large natural landscapes--ranging from President Theodore Roosevelt's establishment of the 800,000-acre Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908 to President Clinton's reservation of about five million acres of national monuments from 1996-2001. Some outraged politicians and observers have called for the repeal of the Act and the reversal of executive monument designations. This Article contends that the controversy over the Act is illustrative of a larger phenomenon--the philosophical view that human culture is distinct from nature. Professor Klein argues that it is time to abandon the rigid legal wall between nature and culture, and to validate explicitly almost a century of past practice preserving large natural areas of historic and scientific significance--"monumental landscapes"--as antiquities.


In 1906, Congress passed a one-page statute called the Antiquities Act, delegating authority to the President to declare small tracts of federal lands as "national monuments." (1) Congress intended simply to protect the nation's archaeological treasures from looting in order to preserve relics such as prehistoric pottery shards, burial mounds, and cliff dwellings. (2) The casual reader may think of modest educational sites and stifle a yawn while recalling tedious family vacation stops at historic battlefields and national landmarks. (3)

The executive branch, however, had a more grandiose view of the Antiquities Act. The congressional ink had barely dried before President Theodore Roosevelt declared seventeen national monuments, including the 808,120-acre Grand Canyon National Monument and the 639,000-acre Mount Olympus National Monument. (4) Numerous other presidents followed suit, creating monuments millions of acres in size. (5) As a result of such aggressive implementation, the statute has been the center of almost a century of intermittent, but bitter, controversy.

Opponents have been outraged by the reservation of large monuments. Following the 1943 designation of the 221,610-acre Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming, one congressman complained that Congress never intended that a national monument approach the size of a U.S. state. (6) More recently, the Antiquities Act received prominent media coverage as a result of President Clinton's declaration of nineteen monuments covering over five million acres. (7) In response, numerous critics decried the designations. An article printed in the Salt Lake Tribune captured the vehemence of the criticism: "We need to recognize these monuments [created by President Clinton under the Antiquities Act] for what they are: a special-interest boon-doggle that sacrificed local populations and the American taxpayers to appease the demands of quasi-religious special-interest groups that the land be cleansed of humanity." (8) In more objective terms, the Wall Street Journal identified national monuments as political "flashpoints." (9)


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Source Citation

Source Citation
Klein, Christine A. "Preserving monumental landscapes under the Antiquities Act." Cornell Law Review, Sept. 2002, p. 1333+. Gale Academic Onefile, Accessed 25 Jan. 2020.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A92808308