Monumental Debate:
What Past Reforms of the Antiquities Act Can Teach Us about Current Controversies
Monumental Debate:
What Past Reforms of the Antiquities Act Can Teach Us about Current Controversies

September 24, 2019

Project Summary

The Antiquities Act, which was passed in 1906, gives presidents the authority to designate national monuments for the purpose of protecting areas of scientific and historic interest. The law has been used to protect many of America’s most iconic locations that would later become national parks. Despite this, national monument designations have also generated controversy regarding the authority of the president to unilaterally control the creation, modification, and removal of national monuments.

Congress has only enacted limits on the president’s use of the Antiquities Act in two state-specific cases that apply to both Alaska and Wyoming. This research analyzes the effect of these limits on the management of federal lands to better understand what the likely effects of additional reforms
would be.

After reviewing the experience of Alaska and Wyoming since reforms were enacted, the author provides three key lessons for potential future reforms:

  • When presidential power was limited in Alaska and Wyoming, Congress became more active in managing federal land by designating more areas as wilderness in those states.
  • In Alaska, Congress effectively created a 5,000-acre limit on national monuments that can be designated by the president. Since then, no president has tried to circumvent it, suggesting that size limits on a president’s authority can work effectively.
  • Federal lands in Alaska, Wyoming, and other states are now protected by many federal laws passed since the Antiquities Act was created, reducing the need for controversial presidential action to ensure adequate protection.

This research suggests that past reforms have been effective at limiting executive power to designate large national monuments in western states without increasing the vulnerability of valuable landscapes and artifacts on federal lands. Policymakers should consider the experience of Alaska and Wyoming when exploring potential reforms to the Antiquities Act.

Project Author