Still saving trees
By Policy Director Jim DiPeso
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: The following op-ed was published on October 25, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
A federal court’s rejection last week of a legal attack on America’s newest national monuments was a welcome reaffirmation of an old conservation law that has stood the test of time.
An appellate court in Washington recently threw out a frivolous lawsuit alleging that then-President Clinton had overstepped his authority in establishing seven national monuments on public lands, including Giant Sequoia in Tulare County.
The lawsuit against the Clinton monuments, filed by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, reflects the belief of hard-right ideologues that the federal government has no business protecting public lands or even holding public lands as a national commons. Theodore Roosevelt, the first president to establish national monuments, would have found such notions to be patently absurd.
Clinton and thirteen of his predecessors have established more than 100 national monuments under the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law passed by a Republican Congress. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have used the Antiquities Act to protect unique landscapes with special natural or historic features that are irreplaceable elements of the American experience.
The Antiquities Act is a profoundly conservative law. By giving presidents authority to block development pressures of the moment, the law allows for the exercise of prudence and fuller deliberation before irrevocable decisions are made that the nation may later regret.
Many of the nation’s most beloved landscapes were initially protected by Republicans using their Antiquities Act authority. Theodore Roosevelt set the pace by establishing eighteen monuments during his second term,, including the famous Muir Woods and what is now Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California.
Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover both established Grand Canyon monuments that later were incorporated into a nationa park, protecting an incomparable place from short-sightedness. Hoover protected several other spectacular Western landscapes, including Death Valley. Both Roosevelt and Hoover acted out of deep-seated beliefs that conservation is a patriotic act that strenghtens America—a traditional ideal that has escaped the grasp of pseudo-conservatives who would just as soon dissipate America’s public lands heritage in a spend-it-all-now development binge.
Conservation opponents are attempting to undermine the Antiquities Act in other ways besides litigation. They sow fear and confusion by arguing that national monuments infringe on private property rights. The Antiquities Act does nothing of the sort, since it explicitely applies only to public lands owned in common by all American citizens.
Another canard raised by Antiquities Act detractors is that Clinton’s monuments were excessively large. A bill introduced in Congress would curtail presidents’ authority to establish monuments exceeding 50,000 acres.
The Antiquities Act states that monuments must be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of objects to be protected. Presidents have traditionally interpreted the language broadly in the interest of effective conservation. More than 25 percent of presidentally-established monuments have exceeded 50,000 acres.
The Grand Canyon monument established by Roosevelt, for example, covered 808,120 acres. Hoover’s Death Valley monument encompassed more than 848,000 acres. Calvin Coolidge, arguably the 20th century’s most conservative president, established 13 monuments, including the king-size Glacier Bay monument, which took in nearly 1.4 million acres.
The Antiquities Act does not deserve to be the target of radical attacks that are wholly inconsistent with America’s conservation traditions. Thanks to this visionary law and presidents who used it wisely, future generations of Americans will be able to appreciate our nation’s rich heritage and its incomparable natural heritage.
Theodore Roosevelt said it best: “Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”