National Monuments Under Attack

In 1906, using power granted to him by Congress under the newly passed Antiquities Act, Teddy Roosevelt declared Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming as America’s first national monument. Over the following 110 years, 16 of 19 presidents used the Act to designate national monuments, many which went on to become iconic national parks — including Grand Canyon, Bryce, Acadia, Olympic and Zion. President

George W. Bush used the Act to designate the first large marine monuments, protecting vast swaths of ocean to save marine life in coral reefs, whales, sea turtles and hundreds of species of fish.

But national monuments are under attack as the Trump administration seeks to slash protections for national monuments — and a hostile Congress may seek changes to the Act that would severely curtail or eliminate presidential authority to designate new national monuments.

Corrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Michael Frye.

The Antiquities Act of 1906

The Antiquities Act, also known as the National Monuments Act, is one of America’s oldest, most important conservation laws, allowing presidents to quickly protect natural and cultural resources on public lands when Congress fails to act in order to preserve objects of “historic and scientific importance.” [] Special places and objects are protected within monument areas; they may be exempted from mining, logging or oil and gas development, though some monument designations “grandfather in” existing land uses.

Legislative history clearly demonstrates that presidents have the authority to designate, but not abolish, national monuments. []

Legal scholars believe presidents lack the authority to reduce boundaries, or weaken protections for existing monuments. [] Congress has reserved these powers to itself.


Executive Order to Review National Monuments

On April 26, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13792, directing the Interior Department to review every monument designated since 1996 that is larger than 100,000 acres [], as well as any monument the secretary deemed should be reviewed. Under the terms of the order, 27 national monuments were reviewed.

On May 5, 2017, the Interior Department started a public comment process on the 27 national monuments. Zinke visited a handful of national monuments and met almost exclusively with their opponents, including representatives of the oil, gas and timber industries. Zinke submitted his report to Trump by the Aug. 24 deadline, but the report was kept secret until it was leaked to the press on September 17.

While the Trump administration has not yet commented on Zinke’s recommendations, they call for slashing protections for 10 national monuments: Bears Ears and Grand Canyon-Escalante in Utah; Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon-California; Gold Butte in Nevada; Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico; and Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine. Zinke also wants to open three marine monuments to industrial commercial fishing: Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic; Pacific Remote Islands; and Rose Atoll in the South Pacific. In addition to removing protections, Zinke also recommends shrinking boundaries for four monuments; Bears Ears and Grand Canyon-Escalante in Utah; Gold Butte in Nevada; and Cascade Siskiyou in California and Oregon.

Zinke claimed to be listening to the people, but instead he ignored more than 2.8 million people who wrote to the Interior Department, nearly all of them urging the administration to preserve protections for these iconic places. As he defends his recommendations against a groundswell of public support for national monuments, it’s clear that Zinke is putting corporate interests — including coal, oil, gas, logging and livestock grazing — ahead of the public lands and wildlife he promised to protect.

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1. 16 U.S.C. § 431 et. seq.

2. Rosenbaum, Robert D. March 29, 2017. "No, President Trump can’t revoke national monuments." in Washington Post.


4. 82 Fed. Reg. 20,429 (May 1, 2017).


Photo of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument courtesy BLM