Efforts by the current administration to reduce the number and size of U.S. national monuments are misguided, said Elizabeth De Santo, Franklin & Marshall assistant professor of environmental studies. Further, she said, those efforts undermine the intention of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which established the monuments, including Devil’s Tower, the Grand Canyon and Mount St. Helens.
Executive Order 13792, written earlier this year, calls for official reviews of 22 terrestrial and five marine monuments. De Santo said, “When these reviews were launched last summer, over 3 million Americans responded to them, the vast majority of whom were against the idea of reducing the size of our monuments or opening them to extractive uses.” But since the public comment period ended, the reviews are continuing with no official updates except an interim report on one site.
De Santo discussed “Unraveling Teddy Roosevelt’s Legacy: America’s National Monuments Under Threat” at the College’s Nov. 30 Common Hour, a community conversation scheduled every Thursday classes are in session.
De Santo has taught at Franklin & Marshall since 2013 and spent the previous four years as a faculty member in the Marine Affairs Program and College of Sustainability at Canada’s Dalhousie University. She also has held professional positions with organizations like the Institute for European Environmental Policy, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the World Environment Center.
“I have been working in the field of marine conservation for nearly 20 years, so it will come as no surprise that I am neither in favor of reducing the size of our monuments, nor of opening them up to extractive uses,” she said. “However, I do recognize that there are different perspectives on this topic.”
As one example, De Santo pointed to the large amounts of federal land in the West. “The criticism some have levied against national monuments as a ‘massive land grab’ is incorrect. The Antiquities Act only applies to land or water owned by the federal government, and there has been no land grab,” she said. “In Utah, the federal government owns 63 percent of the land. I can see why people would feel disempowered by the designation of a monument given that situation, but reducing or delisting monuments is not the answer – the land is still public; it belongs to all of us.”
De Santo said the Antiquities Act was passed when President Theodore Roosevelt and other national leaders reacted to decades of looting, desecration and destruction of Native American sites in the Southwest, and noted the Act’s criteria have been contentious since the beginning.
“Critics of the Act argue that it allows the president to designate monuments without public comment, environmental review, or further consent of Congress,” she said. “However, that is not entirely correct – a great deal of work goes into selecting and designating these sites, and the Act also empowers Congress to designate monuments, and it has done so 40 times. Congress has also redesignated 32 national monuments as national parks, including the Grand Canyon.”
De Santo said the current review of the Antiquities Act is a result of political pressure by commercial interests. “The management plan for Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine is to be modified to protect timber harvesting,” she noted. “Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico could be opened to cattle grazing. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean could be reopened to fishing and other extractive activities.”
De Santo concluded, “There’s a lot more to the national monuments review than may appear at first glance. The appropriateness and legality of the review can be questioned, as can the intent behind it. These special places are often out of sight and out of mind.”