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John Muir and the 1906 Antiquities Act

by David Blackburn

Exerpted from The View From John Muir's Window, November, 1996, Newsletter of the John Muir Memorial Association

Recently, President Clinton created America's newest national park unit: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. With a stroke of a pen, he preserved close to a million acres of canyon county, unique both to our nation and the world. How can the president preserve so much acreage without approval from the congress? Why is such a huge area designated a national monument as opposed to a national park? The President used a significant piece of legislation created at the beginning of the 20th century: the Antiquities Act of 1906.

The Antiquities Act is a powerful piece of legislation. It states:

"The President of the United States is authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interested that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States...."

Thus, the distinction between monuments and parks is fairly simple: monuments are authorized by the President, parks are authorized by Congress. The resources protected also tend to be different. National monuments tend to preserve singular resources. For example, Roosevelt created Devils Tower National Monument, in Wyoming, to preserving a single geologic feature of "scientific interest." National Parks tend to preserve examples of an entire ecosystem, such as the tropical landscape of Everglades NP, the north Atlantic coast at Acadia NP, the Chihuahuan desert at Big Bend NP, the Anasazi culture at Mesa Verde NP and the temperate rainforests of Olympic NP.

So, how does Muir relate to the Antiquities Act? Through two areas that are now National Parks: Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon.

Muir visited the Petrified Forest in 1905 and was enchanted by the stark landscape of the Painted Desert and the preponderance of petrified wood. Unfortunately, others saw great economic opportunity in the exploitation of this unique resource. Muir biographer Frederick Turner states that "vandals dynamited the petrified logs to get at their crystallized innards, and at Adamana a mill had been set up to crush the logs into abrasives." Another Muir biographer, Thurman Wilkins, states "Muir was disturbed by the Santa Fe's railroad practice of carting petrified logs away to be hacked and polished into baubles for the tourist trade." In December of 1906, at Muir's suggestion, Roosevelt created Petrified Forest National Monument. Ultimately, in 1962, Congress added additional lands to the monument and it became Petrified Forest National Park. In 1908, also at Muir's prodding, Roosevelt created Grand Canyon National Monument. In 1919 Congress enlarged the monument and created what we know today as Grand Canyon National Park.

Perhaps the single most significant use of the Antiquities Act was under President Jimmy Carter. In 1978, he doubled the acreage protected by the NPS through the creation of the Alaska parks. These include Bering Land Bridge, Cape Krusenstern and Aniakchak National Monuments. Since that time, many have been changed to National Parks.

The Antiquities Act is a powerful and useful piece of legislation. Unless changed or withdrawn by Congress, this act will continue to serve as an important tool to save America's wild places.

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