Congressional attack on national monuments ignores America’s conservation history

The misleadingly named “National Monument Creation and Protection Act,” which narrowly passed the House Natural Resources Committee last week, is an assault on our public land heritage. H.R. 3990 would make it harder to create new national monuments and would authorize presidents to reduce the size of all existing monuments, from the Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado to the Muir Woods in California.

One hundred and eleven years ago, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, empowering presidents to designate national monuments protecting federal lands that contain objects of interest. Congress believed swift presidential action is sometimes needed to protect threatened landscapes from private exploitation. Since then, 16 presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, have created 157 national monuments on existing federal lands. Congress often followed up to give these lands even more protection, by converting presidentially-designated national monuments into some of our most cherished and visited national parks. These include the Grand Canyon, Zion, Olympic, Acadia, Saguaro, Death Valley, and thirty-two others.

Despite this history, H.R. 3990 would bar presidents from creating monuments that protect “natural geographic features.” Its backers say that Congress never intended presidents to protect these resources. But history shows otherwise. Our first national monument, protected by President Teddy Roosevelt, was the striking geologic wonder Devils Tower. And in 1908, Roosevelt protected the Grand Canyon as a national monument. Under H.R. 3990, neither could have been protected, nor would most of the monuments Congress has later designated as national parks. Dozens of other worthy features like giant saguaro cactus, Joshua trees, and even the majestic Denali (Mount McKinley) wouldn’t have been eligible for protection.

The Supreme Court has twice unanimously confirmed that presidents may create national monuments, including landscape-scale monuments, to protect scenic areas and the geologic formations, plants, and animals they contain.

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