In the opening years of the 20th century, looters ran wild through the Southwest, pillaging cultural treasures left behind by the desert's early inhabitants.
To stop the theft, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law 106 years ago today (June 8).
The Antiquities Act was a Republican accomplishment -- sponsored by Republican Congressman John F. Lacey of Iowa, one of America's lesser-known conservation heroes, and passed by a Republican Congress.
You might not have heard of the Antiquities Act, but the law has been instrumental in protecting some of America's greatest cultural and natural treasures, from the Grand Canyon in the West to the Statue of Liberty in the East.
The law is a model of brevity and vision. A statute with only four paragraphs and fewer than 500 words gives presidents the authority to step in when carelessness, narrow agendas and the pressures of the moment threaten to tear pages out of the history book that people and nature have written on our land.
Since 1906, 16 presidents from both political parties have used their authority under the Antiquities Act to designate more than 130 national monuments on public lands that keep our country's history alive and secure lasting protection for natural treasures that have inspired millions of Americans.
Politics being what it is, monument designations have frequently been controversial. Presidents have been accused of "locking up" public land from extractive uses. Special interests have howled, lawsuits have been filed, and congressmen have introduced bills to water down the law.
Over time, however, as tempers cooled and the benefits of conservation have become apparent, opposition has turned to support.
When Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act to protect the Grand Canyon, he was pilloried by mining and other development interests. Today, the Grand Canyon is a world-famous attraction. TR's visage is on Mount Rushmore. His critics have sunk into obscurity.
There's a lesson there for modern Republican leaders. At a time when they seem to be running away from the party's conservation heritage in a misguided fit of political correctness, the Antiquities Act shows what is possible when Republicans apply the traditional conservative ethic of stewardship to statecraft.
Not many people today would list Calvin Coolidge as a conservation hero, but his undeniable conservatism included the timeless virtues of thrift and saving for the future. Coolidge used the Antiquities Act to protect the Statue of Liberty, along with natural wonders such as Carlsbad Caverns, Craters of the Moon, and Glacier Bay.
George W. Bush, whose name still raises blood pressure among liberal environmentalists, used the Antiquities Act for a breathtaking conservation achievement -- protecting some 200 million acres of islands and territorial ocean waters that hold geological curiosities, archaeological artifacts and spectacular marine wildlife.
Bush's oceanic monuments are more than twice as large as all of our national parks combined.
Protecting our American heritage is an act of patriotism. Our heritage helps us appreciate our country's special place in history. The Republicans who passed the Antiquities Act and the presidents who used the law understood that.
We can too. This summer, get out on one or two of our national monuments. Rough it for a few days. No hotels, no room service, no Internet, no talking heads on TV trying to tell you how to think. Breathe the fresh air, experience the natural quiet, have a look around, and try to imagine what our forebears thought about when they stood in the same spot.
The land and the memories it carries are your American heritage.