Devils Tower. Grand Canyon. Death Valley. Arches. These are some of America’s greatest national parks and monuments, and all were protected because of a law known as the Antiquities Act. The Act was first used in Wyoming, but today Wyoming is the only state where the Antiquities Act cannot be used, depriving Wyoming of its safeguards — and economic benefits.
The Antiquities Act was passed in 1906 and first used by then President Theodore Roosevelt to create Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming. The Act is a powerful law, allowing the president to unilaterally establish a national monument on federal land. While national monuments can also be designated by acts of Congress, that has always been a slow and difficult process. The Antiquities Act bypasses partisan gridlock to quickly save resources under immediate threat.
The National Parks Conservation Association calls the Act “one of our nation’s most important conservation tools.” Since it was passed, 16 of 21 presidents — including Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump — have used the act to create national monuments across the nation, from Maine to Hawaii.
But when the Antiquities Act was used to create a national monument that would later become part of Grand Teton National Park, local residents in Wyoming saw it as such an overreach that in 1950, Congress passed legislation so that it would never happen again. The law stripped away the president’s ability under the Antiquities Act to create any new national monuments in the state of Wyoming.
While Wyoming hasn’t benefited from the Antiquities Act in decades, every other state in the West has. Since 1950, 17 national monuments have been created in the Mountain time zone alone, protecting archaeological sites, fossils, historic landmarks and recreational opportunities, while also attracting millions of visitors (and their wallets). Think of William Clark’s centuries-old signature carved into rock at Pompeys Pillar in Montana, or thousands of fossils at Bears Ears in Utah, or the more than 8,000 ancient villages, petroglyphs and other sites at Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, and you’re thinking of important resources protected with the Antiquities Act.
Unprotected resources are at much greater risk of damage from careless off-roaders, vandalism and outright theft than those within national monuments. In Wyoming, federal lands are full of sites worthy of recognition and protection, but without the Antiquities Act they might not get the recognition and protection they deserve.
At Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite near Greybull, you can walk alongside rare dinosaur footprints laid down millions of years ago. High atop Medicine Mountain in the Bighorn National Forest, a wheel of stones made by Native Americans has been used for centuries, if not millennia, for worship and study of the stars. And National Parks Traveler argues that Wyoming’s magnificent Wind River range “visibly defines spectacular” and deserves greater recognition at a national level.
There’s a real economic benefit to bringing back the Antiquities Act to Wyoming. Chimney Rock in Colorado was declared a national monument in 2012, and it saw a 51% increase in visitation from 2011 to 2016. More national monument visitors means more money spent locally, according to studies by Montana-based Headwaters Economics and D.C.-based Resources for the Future. Both nonprofits found that local economies gained new businesses and jobs after national monuments were established nearby.
Wyoming, struggling to adapt to a world moving away from fossil fuels, needs those businesses and jobs. The state’s largest industries are tourism and extraction. With a dim long-term outlook for oil and coal, the state needs to boost another industry such as tourism to avoid more colossal state budget cuts, like the $430 million cut made last year that eliminated 324 jobs and, in the words of Gov. Mark Gordon, “set our state back by eliminating valuable programs and services.”
New monuments could also give local communities more of a voice in how natural resources are managed. Many national monuments are jointly managed by a federal agency and non-federal partners, both public and private. Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, for example, is co-managed with the Navajo Nation. Waco Mammoth National Monument is co-managed with the city of Waco, Texas, and César E. Chávez National Monument in California is co-managed with the National Chávez Center. All of these partnerships give local communities more say about what happens on the ground.
Wyoming has been left out of the Antiquities Act for more than seven decades, but Congress could change the law to make it apply in Wyoming again. A change in the law could bring new monuments, businesses and jobs to Wyoming — and who in Congress wouldn’t want that?