Written by Denise Ryan, Director of Public Lands Policy, Government Relations and Policy
This past week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on H.R. 1459, the "Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monument Act." The bill's title is misleading: What the legislation actually proposes is to curtail the President's ability to act swiftly to establish or expand the designation of national monuments on federally owned or controlled property in order to protect sites, objects, and landscapes of historic, cultural, or scientific interest.
President Obama has used this law 10 times to great effect since 2011 to protect a wide array of places that have played a vital role in our country's history -- places such as Fort Monroe in Virginia, Chimney Rock in Colorado, César E. Chávez in California, Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad in Maryland, and El Rio Grande Del Norte in New Mexico.
Unfortunately, the House voted 222-201 to pass this problematic piece of legislation, mostly along party lines with 10 Republicans crossing over to oppose the bill and three Democrats voting to support the bill. Now that the House has passed it, the bill moves over to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; if favorably reported out of this committee, it will land before the full Senate for consideration.
Be assured that we at the National Trust and our allies will continue to educate the members of the Senate on the flaws of H.R. 1459 in order to defeat this bill and preserve the Act's power. Let's start with the top five reasons we support the Antiquities Act.<
National monuments help preserve and protect our diverse national heritage.
Just look at the new monuments from the last five years. They capture significant moments in U.S. history, from the stories of the first Native Americans to settle in the Americas, to the beginning of the end of slavery; from the farm workers labor movement, to the difference one woman who began her life as a slave had on freedom for many. These invaluable places and events weave together the story of our rich American tapestry.
Retaining the ability for the President to act when Congress is either unwilling or unable is vital to the law's original purpose.
When thieves were looting sites rich in Native American artifacts and human remains during the late 1800s, Congress passed the Antiquities Act to give the President the authority to establish National Monuments quickly to protect these sites. More recently, when the Base Realignment and Closure process prompted the Army to leave the 400-year-old American military fort dubbed "Freedom's Fortress," the President was able to establish Fort Monroe National Monument to protect the 170 historic buildings. This included the largest moated fort in continuous use in the United States -- a vital piece of our Civil War history where the emancipation of a half-million enslaved people took place would have been lost.
The Antiquities Act is a proven bipartisan tool.
Since the law's enactment in 1906, 16 out of 19 Presidents (eight Democratic and eight Republican) have used their authority to either establish new national monuments or enlarge existing monuments for future generations to enjoy. One example: In the early 1900s, politicians in Iowa were trying to protect unique, animal-shaped Native American mounds along the high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Bills to create a National Park there were introduced and failed in five different sessions of Congress between World War I and World War II. It wasn't until after World War II that President Truman stepped in to use the Antiquities Act to designate the 1,200 acre Effigy Mounds National Monument.
The Antiquities Act has already been used in ways that involve public participation.
At Fort Monroe, Chimney Rock, and elsewhere, the Obama Administration kept its promises to involve the public in a ground-up process, including local meetings to listen to citizens' ideas, concerns, and visions for the future of these historic sites and landscapes. At each of the ten recent Obama national monument designations, Administration officials have led these public meetings with the support of the local Congressional representative or delegation.
The Antiquities Act can help support local economic growth and sustainability by incorporating sites into "America's Best Idea."
According to the National Park Service, ten dollars in economic activity is generated for every dollar of federal investment in National Parks, which includes National Park Service National Monuments, Battlefields, Historic Sites, and other designations. The National Trust also commissioned our own economic study for the proposed and now designated Chimney Rock National Monument. It predicted that five years after a National Monument designation, heritage tourism to the site would double and the value of Chimney Rock in the regional economy would double as well.
Supporting America's oldest preservation law, the Antiquities Act, is a no-brainer for preservationists. And, the government shutdown in October 2013 proved to be a wake-up call for the wider public on this issue. During this period, when national parks and monuments were closed, many Americans realized just how important these places are to local tourism economies, to family vacations, and to the memory of our fallen soldiers from the Revolutionary War to the Vietnam War.
For these reasons, the National Trust will continue to fight to keep the Antiquities Act strong and vital to protect our heritage for future generations. We'll hope you'll join us in taking action.