Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

National Monuments: Long-Term National Versus Short-Term Local Interests

Since the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, the president has used the power granted by Congress 247 times to establish or expand national monuments. Most times, there was local opposition from private interests seeking to own, control, and/or exploit resources on federal public lands that belong to all Americans—both living and those to come.

Local interests are often aligned with short-term economic exploitation, which can be contrary to long-term national interests. As the lands in question are owned by the national government, the national interest should prevail.

Many bills have been introduced in Congress over the years to either revoke the power granted to the president to proclaim national monuments or to require the approval of local government. It is quite possible that such a bill could be passed into law during the next Congress (2017-18), as Republicans will control both houses and the White House. While the majority of Republicans, when polled, favor national monuments by margins similar to those found by polls of all Americans, Republican leaders—beholden to industrial interests—do not.

To those today who say the Antiquities Act goes too far, that local management of federal public lands is best, and who therefore favor either outright repeal or downright emasculation of the Antiquities Act, here’ a list of national monuments that were highly and locally controversial—back in the day.

The basis of these national parks were locally controversial national monuments: Arches, Acadia, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Carlsbad Caverns, Channel Islands, Death Valley, Denali, Dry Tortugas, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Basin, Great Sand Dunes, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, Lassen Volcanic, Olympic, Pinnacles, Saguaro, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Zion.

Here are some national monuments, quite beloved today, that had strong local opposition at the time of their proclamation: Devil’s Tower, Petrified Forest, Muir Woods, Oregon Caves, Natural Bridges, Dinosaur, White Sands, Caters of the Moon, Lava Beds, Admiralty Island, Cascade-Siskiyou, and Virgin Island Coral Reef.

If it’s good public policy today to allow short-term local interests to prevail over long-term national interests as they relate to federal public lands, it would also have been good policy since 1906. And that would have meant that none of these national parks and national monuments would have been set aside for this and future generations. Would today’s national monument opponents also favor disestablishing these national parks and national monuments?

In the spring of 2016, the voters of Oregon’s Malheur County voted nine to one against the notion that President Obama should proclaim an Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument. While that’s an overwhelming margin in opposition, it’s not a lot of votes. All the voters in Malheur County could fit into 3.5 of the 113 precincts in Multnomah County—and Multnomah County, though the largest of Oregon’s 36 counties and home to the state’s largest city, has only one-fifth of the state’s voting population.

A statewide poll shows great support for an Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument. Though no national poll has been done, it is logical to presume—given many other polls pertaining to public lands—that the support across the country for an Owyhee Canyonlands national monument would be even greater.

Living in close proximity to federal public lands does not bestow either a greater claim on those lands’ resources or a greater say in how they are administered than is afforded to Americans living elsewhere.

The people of Boston might make more money chopping up Old Ironsides into souvenirs and leasing out the space on the water to a floating casino, but they can’t. The oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy doesn’t belong to them alone. The people of Washington DC might make more money if the National Mall were converted to condominiums, but they can’t. The nation’s lawn doesn’t belong to them alone.

Nor do the nation’s federal public lands belong to locals alone.