America’s Oldest Preservation Law Faces New Uncertainties

By Janelle DiLuccia posted 02-01-2017 17:00


Sixty years before the National Historic Preservation Act, Congress passed and President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, giving the president authority to act swiftly and decisively to preserve historic sites and cultural resources on public lands by designating national monuments. In the 110 years since, eight Republican and eight Democratic presidents have used the Antiquities Act to protect some of America’s most beloved and iconic places.

Defensive wall at Bears Ears / Ancestral Places in Southeast Utah. | Credit: Donald J. Rommes

Jackson Hole National Monument

In 1943 President Franklin Roosevelt designated the Jackson Hole National Monument to protect roughly 210,000 acres adjacent to Grand Teton National Park. Though some local residents, business owners, and ranchers; John D. Rockefeller Jr.; and early National Park Service leaders had worked for years to expand the park and protect the Jackson Hole Valley from development, the monument designation was highly controversial.

Famously, the state of Wyoming fought the Jackson Hole National Monument tooth and nail, including unsuccessfully challenging the 1943 monument designation in court. Eventually public sentiment turned as the tourism economy grew, and compromise legislation in 1950 added the national monument to the existing 96,000-acre Grand Teton National Park. Notably, the legislation also stipulated that any future monument designation in the state of Wyoming requires congressional authorization. 

The late Senator Cliff Hansen, R-Wyo., helped lead local opposition to the Jackson Hole National Monument as a county commissioner and local cattle rancher, but would later come to rethink his position. “I want you all to know that I’m glad I lost, because I now know I was wrong. Grand Teton National Park is one of the greatest natural heritages of Wyoming and the nation and one of our great assets,” he said at a luncheon in New York in 1967.

Today, Grand Teton National Park is a cherished part of the National Park System and an economic driver in the region, with more than 4.6 million visitors in 2015 spending an estimated $560 million in gateway communities.

Congressional Challenges

Despite its many successes, the Antiquities Act still has its detractors. On January 5, 2017, Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., introduced legislation (S. 33) to require congressional and state approval, as well as review under the National Environmental Policy Act, for presidential designation of monuments. The bill currently has 25 cosponsors and has been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Senator Murkowski chairs. In addition to this sweeping bill, on January 4, 2017, Senator Dean Heller, R-Nev., introduced the Nevada Land Sovereignty Act (S. 22) to prohibit any monument designations in Nevada unless expressly authorized by Congress.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, Representative Mark Amodei, R-Nev., has introduced companion legislation to the Nevada Land Sovereignty Act (H.R. 243). And Representative Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has suggested that all monuments designated by the Obama and Clinton administrations be abolished. Although the Antiquities Act does not authorize the president to rescind monument designations and no president has attempted to do so, the Utah delegation’s hostility toward the act and specific monuments creates real concern for many of our nation’s most historic landscapes and sites.

Congressional efforts to hobble the Antiquities Act are not new. During the 114th Congress, members of the House and Senate introduced at least 17 different bills aimed at weakening the act. Those bills sought to require congressional, state government, and/or local government approval of new monuments; prohibit designations in certain areas; restrict monument size; or otherwise restrict or remove presidential authority to designate monuments. Thankfully, public support for national monuments and active involvement from preservationists, conservationists, and many others has helped the Antiquities Act remain intact. Most of these bills made it no further than introduction, and none made it to the president’s desk. Allowing states or Congress to veto or run out the clock on protections for important historic sites on public lands undermines the intent and effectiveness of the Antiquities Act.


Press event at the A.G. Gaston Motel announcing the truce ending the 1963 protest marches. | Credit: City of Birmingham Archives

How to Help

How exactly the new Trump administration will view the Antiquities Act remains unclear. During a hearing on his nomination to be secretary of the interior, Montana congressman Ryan Zinke left the door open to attempting to overturn monument designations, saying, “There’s no doubt the president has the power to amend a monument. It will certainly be interesting to see whether the president has the authority to nullify a monument.” He referenced the “pending problems” in Utah and vowed to visit the state in the near term.

Robust engagement is as important as ever in the new Congress and with a new administration.

  • Contact Congress. Members of Congress need to hear from preservation leaders about the importance of the Antiquities Act. Sign our letter to Congress urging opposition to any proposal that would weaken the Antiquities Act or previous monument designations.
  • Write op-eds and letters to the editor. If there is a national monument in your state, consider writing an op-ed or letter to the editor in your local paper about the value of that monument to the local community and the role of the Antiquities Act in protecting cultural and historic resources
Chimney Rock Great House. | Credit: Tobias Hoellrich

These Places Matter

President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate nationally significant, diverse cultural and historic sites to ensure that our system of parks and monuments reflects the full measure of our history. Five of the National Trust’s National Treasures have been included in designated national monuments under the Antiquities Act in recent years.

Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument

Date designated: January 12, 2017
Location: Birmingham, Alabama
Read the presidential proclamation.

The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument—along with the Freedom Riders National Monument and the Reconstruction Era National Monument, designated the same day—tells the story of pivotal places and events in the difficult, long, and continued march toward racial equality. The new monument centers on the A.G. Gaston Motel, the epicenter for Civil Rights planning in Birmingham during spring 1963. The motel, itself a testament to African American entrepreneurship during segregation, hosted strategy meetings among Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, and other anti-segregation movement leaders. It was at the Gaston Motel that Dr. King decided to defy the court and submit to being jailed in solidarity with local protesters. The monument also includes the 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, and other sites within the Birmingham Civil Rights Historic District with stories that galvanized national attention and momentum to eventually pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The National Trust named the A.G. Gaston Motel a National Treasure in 2015 and one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2015.

Bears Ears National Monument

Date designated: December 28, 2016
Location: Southeastern Utah
Read the presidential proclamation.

The Bears Ears National Monument encompasses a culturally rich landscape with archaeological sites that reflect 12,000 years of human history. The area contains cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, ancient roads, Ice Age hunting camps, and other important cultural resources. Native American tribes including the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni have sacred ties to the region and continue ceremonial and traditional uses of the area.

The National Trust named Bears Ears a National Treasure in 2013 and listed it among America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2016.


George Pullman named the Hotel Florence after one of his daughters. Today the building is undergoing a multiyear restoration and is used for interpretive tours, special events and programs, and community activities. | Credit: © 2014, CYNTHIA LYNN PHOTOGRAPHY, LLC

Pullman National Monument

Date designated: February 19, 2015
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Read the presidential proclamation.

The Pullman National Monument showcases the nation’s first model industrial town, which was founded by industrialist George Pullman in 1880 to attract workers for his luxury Pullman Palace rail cars. Beyond the notable architectural value of the area designed by Solon S. Beman and landscape architect Nathan Barrett, Pullman has important connections to struggles for workers’ and civil rights. It was the site of a divisive labor strike of 1894 and of a major 1937 labor agreement with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first all–African American union in the country, that resulted in better hours and wages.

The National Trust named the Pullman Historic District a National Treasure in 2014 and listed the Pullman Administration Building and Factory Complex among America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1999.

Chimney Rock National Monument

Date designated: September 21, 2012
Location: Southwestern Colorado
Read the presidential proclamation.

The soaring twin rock spires and surrounding lands of the Chimney Rock National Monument offer a view into the robust culture of the Ancestral Pueblo People who occupied the surrounding lands between A.D. 925 and 1125. The 1,000-year-old archaeological remains include the Great House Pueblo, an impressive archaeoastronomical resource that was likely used as an observatory of the annual summer solstice and the northern lunar standstill that occurs every 18.6 years. The area remains significant for modern Pueblo and other descendant tribes who continue cultural uses at the site.

The National Trust named Chimney Rock a National Treasure in 2011.

Aerial shot of Ft. Monroe. | Credit: Fort Monroe Authority

Fort Monroe National Monument

Date designated: November 1, 2011
Location: Hampton, Virginia
Read the presidential proclamation.

Fort Monroe has ties to both the origins and ending of slavery in America. In 1619 the first slave ship to arrive in the colonies docked where Fort Monroe now stands. More than two centuries later, Fort Monroe served as a Union stronghold during the Civil War and provided refuge and a pathway to freedom for thousands of enslaved people. In 1861 enslaved African Americans Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend sought protection there and Union General Benjamin Butler declared them “contraband” of war rather than returning them. Thousands of others followed in their footsteps, marking a key turning point toward the end of slavery in America.

The National Trust named Fort Monroe a National Treasure in 2012.

Janelle DiLuccia is the associate director of public lands policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#Advocacy #congress #PublicLands #AntiquitiesAct