Devils Tower National Monument. (Jim & Robin/FlickrCC)

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.

Opinion

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.

While Wyoming hasn’t benefited from the Antiquities Act in decades, every other state in the West has.

Adam larson

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?

Adam Larson

Adam Larson is a writer and former seasonal park ranger at a co-managed national monument created through the Antiquities Act.

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  1. The Antiquities Act is one of the most important laws ever passed by Congress. IIt took 7 years for the final version of the law to pass, the first bills protecting ruins and other objects was first proposed in 1899. Had the law passed a few years earlier, such as 1902 or 1903, Devils Tower would not have been the first site set aside, or even the fifty-first site, Teddy would have set aside Niagara Falls in New York and the Wisconsin Dells in Wisconsin well before Devils Tower.

    Congress debated whether to require Congress sign off on monument proclamations, but ultimately left it up solely to the president. there were attempts by the Presidents in the 1920s and 30s to get Congress to amend the Act to allow for shrinking monuments, but Congress refused. While there were periodic shrinking of monuments, the largest being a 70000 acre reduction of the second Grand Canyon monument(from 270,000 acres to 200,000 acres) n 1940, and Wilson shrinking Mount Olympus from 640,000 acres to roughly 340,000 acres in 1915, those reductions were under the auspices pf a 1915 Supreme Court ruling called MIdwest OIl , which held that the president had implied powers in regards to federal lands. Congress overturned Midwest Oil in 1976 as part of the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, so while the president retains the ability to create monuments, the ability to change monuments is now limited to expanding them,

    There have been challenges to monuments almost from the time the law passed. The legality of the Antiquities Act was settled by the Supreme Court in 1920 in a case called Cameron vs US, which challenged the creation of the Grand Canyon as a monument in 1908. the Court ruled 9-0 that the canyon was a valid monument and that 808000 acres was not too large an area to include in the monument.. By the time the Court ruled, there had been other large monuments created, such as Mount Olympus (640000 acres in 1909) and Katmail (1.1 million acres in 1918). so rather than being a recent phenomenon, large monuments have been a thing from the start.
    There have been challenges to monuments based on just about any complaint you can think of, such as the size of the monument, that the law is too vague, or the law conflicts with other, more recent laws. The courts have always rejected those challenges.

    While monument proclamations in the early years were rather sparse on details on what the monument was protecting, the courts upheld the monuments when challenged, reasoning that the president had acted in good faith in creating them. In 1945’s Wyoming v Franke, the court held that it was enough that the president believed an area contained objects of historic or scientific importance for him to declare it a monument. Wyoming had challenged the creation of Jackson Hole monument in 1943 , arguing that it didnt have anything in it of historical importance. The courts rejected Wyoming’s claims.

    Modern proclamations are not vague at all, indeed they are exhaustive in describing the objects to be protected, the importance of those areas and the connections, in many areas, to the native peoples. Bears Ears is a prime example of this.
    i would make 3 changes to the Antiquities Act to ensure that areas are protected that the state, local counties and the native tribes get money from it, and that violations of the law, such as damaging natural formations are punished more harshly.

    First, i would eliminate.the exemption in Wyoming and the 5000 acre size limit in Alaska. No state, territory or possession, in whole or part , can be exempted from having monuments created within their borders

    Second, the penalties for damaging Indian ruins, natural formations, native fauna such as cacti or poaching wildlife is upgraded to a felony, with fines of 20000 per offense and up to 5 years in prison. Currently the penalties for such things is a misdemeanor, with penalties of a 500 dollar fine and/or 90 days in jail. Examples such as those two idiots who filmed themselves toppling a hoodoo in Oregon, or the woman who sprayed her so-called ‘art’ on rocks in 10 national parks, demonstrate that the current penalties aren’t enough of a deterrent.

    Third, i would require that monuments be funded as part of their creation, either by Congress or the president. a lot of the gripes against monuments come from the fact that no money comes with them upon their creation, its up to Congress to allot the money and when it does get around to it, the budgets are almost always tiny. The first budget of the nearly 90000 acre Kathadin Woods and Waters monument in Maine? a mere $400, 000. Thats enough to hire, maybe, a couple people, not nearly enough to properly manage the area.

    I would require that a monument must get a minimum of $100 million a year, ranging up to $2 billion a year for monuments who are either 1 million acres in size or more, or areas that have a backlog of 300 million or more. monuments that stretch into multiple states can go above the $2 billion dollar ceiling. So, for instance, a monument protecting Oak Flats in Arizona, would probably be around 100 million a year, while a monument protecting Bristol Bay in Alaska would get 2 billion, and a monument protecting the Owyhee Canyonlands would get between 6 to 8 billion, depending on how much Nevada is allotted.

    To preserve intelligible principle, the president cant allot more than 2 billion a year,to an monument, and cant reduce funding to a monument or reduce the size of a monument. only Congress can do that. Congress would have no ceiling, if it wanted to allot 10 billion to a North Woods monument in Maine, it could.

    To avoid the usual bellyaching, the states, counties and tribes would get 10% of the budgets of the monument. So in this scenario, Utah would get 200 million a year from Bears Ears, San Juan County would get 200 million, and the tribes that consider Bears Ears sacred would split 200 million. Hard to complain when you have a check in your hands with 6 or more zeroes on it, right? Alaska would probably get over 10 billion a year from the current parks and monuments there, to say nothing of the new ones added. The boroughs and tribes or their corporations would get the same amount. That money would go a LONG way to address a LOT of problems. and if the managers of Bears Ears can’t properly manage the monument on $1.4 billion a year, well then we don’t have the right people working there.

  2. Adam: I finally remembered the name of the professor who was charged with a violation under the Antiquities Act of 1906. His name was Ferris Jenkins and he was a distinguished paleontologist from Harvard. The Federal judge in Billings ruled the Act unconstitutionally vague probably because it does not specifically mention paleontological resources. His case is not well known but the implications of the ruling are worrisome. I highly recommend a complete rewrite of the Act and upgrading to today’s standards.

  3. Russell: Thank you for submitting a list of potential national monument sites. The list should have included the actual owner of the surface estate for each site. Example, the State of Wyoming appears to own the surface of the Legend Rock Petroglyph site and the segment of the Castle Gardens south of Moneta which is accessible to the public. For sites owned by the State of Wyoming which are already under management by State Parks – they should remain under State management. However, many of the sites on your list are Federal land – either BLM or USFS – and they can be considered for management by Federal agencies including transferring to the National Parks Dept. of Interior. Sites already managed by the State should logically be under State management..

  4. There are number of sites in Wyoming that need to be protected by the Antiquities Act.
    Some sites that need this protection are:
    1. The Shoshone Cavern west of Cody
    2. The Castle Gardens Scenic Area south of Ten sleep
    3. The Castle Gardens Petroglyph Site southeast of Moneta
    4. The Legend Rock Petroglyph’s Site north west of Thermopolis
    5. The Medicine Wheel Site off US14A in the Bighorns.
    In southwest Wyoming we need to protect:
    6. The Leucite Hills Volcanic field
    7. Killpecker Sand Dunes
    I know there are many more possible sites but these are few I believe need better management and protection than what they currently have been given.

    1. I forgot about White Mountain Petroglyphs in Southwest Wyoming near Rock springs. They make my list as well. Lets face we just need to protect the whole Red Desert Scenic Area.

  5. Congress, please, please, please make the Antiquities Act apply to Wyoming again. Lord knows we suck at taking care of our own local parks. Just look at how well we did taking care of Shoshone Cavern National Monument when a bunch of local idiots felt they could do a better job than the federal government. That worked out so well the locals lost the site and now it is managed by the BLM. Today you cannot even get to the Cavern without getting special permission from the BLM and a key to the gate.
    Not sure what I am talking about read the link:
    Shoshone Cavern, Wyoming’s Only Delisted National Monument: https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/shoshone-cavern-wyomings-only-delisted-national-monument

  6. I’m very happy to see a wide range of intelligent comments regarding my piece. Many of them have actually raised points that if I was writing a longer piece I would have included, like the historical reasons why some dislike the Antiquities Act and that monument designation can cause new problems that require education and enforcement to solve. All in all, it’s nice to see people expressing a diverse range of viewpoints and providing reasoned arguments to support their opinions.

    1. Given the number of informed comments perhaps you should ask the editors for a “do-over” to be posted in the near future. Frankly I learned more from reading the comments than from your opinion piece. Good luck.

  7. Larson writes, “Chimney Rock in Colorado was declared a national monument in 2012, and it saw a 51% increase in visitation from 2011 to 2016.” as if increasing hordes of people trampling the earth, destroying pictographs and leaving waste, is one of the benefits of using the antiquities act. This is exactly why more monuments will lead to greater destruction of land, not preservation of it. Hardly anyone knew of, or went to, Bears Ears area before it was declared a monument. Now visitation by people with no idea how to leave no trace are swarming the area and will do a great deal of harm as visitation increases.

  8. Adam: You missed the most important aspect of the Antiquities Act – it is extremely poorly written and very, very vague. In fact, a Federal judge in Montana ( Billings ) ruled it ” unconstitutionally vague” in the case of an ivy league professor charged with collecting vertebrate fossils on Federal land. Therefore, any actions taken under the act are wide open to legal challenge as vague. The Act desperately needs to be updated to today’s standards ; example, 1906 legislation did not have a section of ” definitions ” which apply to the Act.

    The Act is so short – one paragraph and its a brief paragraph – that you should have included it in your article. Totally out of date and ripe for legal challenge. We can do much better than the Act.

  9. Excellent piece. The underlying truth is that the Antiquities Act has been the only law (since ANILCA) to protect in a major way lands and waters but western states that have benefitted most from it hate the law despite the fact that it has prevented despoiling of their natural treasures.

  10. My impression is that Wyoming legislation prevents the Antiquities Act from being applied in Wyoming, not Federal. When in 1934, the Feds wanted to protect the majestic Tetons, they ran into folks more interested in preserving their subsidized, almost free, right to graze their cattle on somebody else’s land. To be clear, the row of five Mormon homesteads in question, who underhandedly gained possession of the entire Teton valley, were unwilling to relinquish their grazing rights on Federal land. They expected to be paid full value of the land in exchange for giving up the paltry $1.34 per AUM they paid to use public land to graze their cows. Certainly this is a case of the tail wagging the dog. The rest of the ranchers in Wyoming, plus the newly elected governor Lester Hunt, went to bat to benefit these five families who had filed patent after patent to control the valley even though they lived communally. That is technically a no-no but since everybody was doing it, they got away with it. So the entire state of Wyoming was willing to cut off its nose to spite its face when they banned the Federal Antiquities Act from ever being implemented again in the state. I will bet that suitable legislation to reverse that law is doomed to failure. Ranchers who hold state and federal grazing leases consider that public land to be theirs; only they can sell it at full market value. I can’t think of another example of hubris more selfish and short-sighted.

  11. Your story leaves a big Hole in it by failing to discuss the time in the 1940s when FDR turned the entire town of Jackson Hole into a ‘national monument.’ The entire town! That was what Wyoming was reacting to when it asked to be excluded and Jackson Hole returned to normal (if the place has ever been normal). Please talk with your fellow reporter, Angus Thuermer, as he did an excellent story about this many years ago. FDR’s move was a complete political dig at Wyoming and its Republicans. Tell that story, too, please.

  12. A little more research would have been beneficial for this article. For example, there has been a proposal on the table for creating an Adobe Town National Monument for almost six years. Adobe Town far exceeds the criteria for a NM through the badland’s geographical features, is one of the three most important sites in North America for scientific study of fossils of the Eocene Epic, has one of the highest densities per acre of Native American sites in Wyoming and may be one of the few intact ecosystems in Wyoming.

    Who wouldn’t want it?
    The Wyoming Congressional Delegation
    The Governor
    Mineral Industry
    County Commissioners
    Anti-conservation organizations
    Bureau of Land Management
    and more.

    Keep in mind that if the livestock industry had their way back in the early to mid-part of the 20th century, there would not be a Teton National Park and the entire Snake River Valley would be a sea of development.

    Likewise, there has never been one square inch of BLM land permanently set aside for a conservation purpose in Wyoming. Of the eleven western states that have BLM land only Wyoming has that distinction.

    The Governor has stated that he wants local control of public lands. Imagine the results if county commissioners and other entities managed the millions of acres public land.

    Although your recommendation has merit, the same beneficial result could be obtained if there were individuals in elected positions that were dedicated to promoting conservation tourism the State and not be closed minded. The Greater Yellowstone Area is an example of a Meca for conservation tourism.
    The opportunities abound to help diversify the economy through tourism in southern Wyoming, but few care or will listen to reason. Economic development coordinators in nearly all predominately public land counties have no experience or vision of the possibilities. And if they did, the paymaster might not like it. So, they go along and try to support the next rock shop not realizing that the success of small businesses can depend on having an anchor that has a national designation that will attract and hold tourist for several days, which is the key to tourism in Wyoming.

    The strangest part of all is that every national park and forest in Wyoming was the result of a Republican administration. My how things have changed.

    1. Vernon: The block on designating national monuments in Wyoming was adopted because State government and county government were being excluded from the decision making process; that is, we didn’t have a seat at the table. Much of that has changed now with State and local governments finally being recognized as cooperating agencies when BLM and USFS management plans are revised. Angus’s recent article on wilderness study areas is an example of county governments exercising their right to be involved in the decision making process. It is possible to get the support of the county commissioners for potential national monument designation but only by using a grass roots, from the bottom up, initiative. Initiatives which originate with predominately out of state backing or are top down initiatives will not receive local support from the county commissioners. Bottom line is that you must deal with the newly empowered county governments in Wyoming – you can no longer impose land management decisions on Wyoming without State and local input. All we ask is to be involved in the decision making process – thats all.

  13. Federal overreach is still a concern. Protecting our natural resources, wild and beautiful places is a concern. Overuse and abuse of our natural resources is truly a threat. The Wind River Range has seen steady increase of use. I didn’t do a study, I live here. I have seen the incredible volume of cars parked at Elkhart Trailhead parking area. How do you balance use with protection? Many guests don’t have “conservation” attitudes and create litter, leave human waste, build cairns. Creating national monument status may increase use. Is that what is best for our delicate wild land? We must continually weigh the benefits of the designation with the reality of how the lands are currently used. Do we want to see such an increase in seasonal use that permitting is required? Could be one solution, but is it best? There are already private groups that are attempting to clean trails and revitalize areas devastated by overuse. Who decides what is very best for these wild lands? Would a federal entity be better than a state entity? More engaging conversations must be done involving local, state and stakeholders. We all need a new attitude of preservation.