A Modern Take on the Antiquities Act of 1906

mountain-1462655_1280During the waning days of his administration, President Obama used the Antiquities Act of 1906 (16 USC 431-433) (“Act”) to create expansive national monuments on land and at sea.  According to the National Park Service, he established 34 national monuments during his administration totaling over 550 million acres. One of these monuments is located in Maine, and another is situated off the coast of Massachusetts.  While environmentalists have enthusiastically supported the designations, critics have raised concerns about their potential economic impacts and new limitations on resource area use.

Congress passed the Act in 1906 as a means of halting the destruction of archaeological sites, particularly those of the Southwest.  While only Congress can establish national parks, Section 2 of the Act authorizes a president “to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest . . .  to be national monuments.” After signing the bill into law, President Theodore Roosevelt quickly designated Devils Tower in Wyoming as the first national monument. This designation proved to be one of many for Roosevelt and set a lasting precedent for his successors.

As part of his late-term designations, President Obama created the Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument in Maine on August 24, 2016.  According to his presidential proclamation, this monument is approximately 87,500 acres and borders Baxter State Park, home to Mount Katahdin.  Elliotsville Plantation Inc., run by Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, donated the land to the federal government, along with a pledge of $40 million for infrastructure improvements.  In his proclamation, President Obama cited to the land’s biodiversity, recreational opportunities, geography, and rich history as justifying the designation.

Subsequently, President Obama created the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean on September 15, 2016: the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. As set forth in his presidential proclamation, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is located 130 miles off the southeast coast of Cape Cod and consists of 4,913 square miles.  The proclamation indicates the presence of significant underwater canyons, seamounts and abundant biodiversity.  Pursuant to the designation, commercial fishing, mining and drilling are banned within the monument area; fishing for lobster and red crab will be phased out over a seven-year period.  Recreational fishing, however, is permitted within the monument area.

President Obama’s use of the Act to create these national monuments has stirred much debate, and encountered some resistance from industry groups and local residents and officials.  In the West, concerns often include loss of mining, grazing, oil, gas and forestry rights.  In New England ports, the fishing industry has raised concerns over the impact of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument on the local fishing industry.  Specifically, fishing associations have argued that sufficient regulatory safeguards already exist, and that the loss of fishing grounds will cause further economic hardship to struggling fleets.

In Maine, some members of the state legislature and the governor have opposed the Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument.  Similarly, some local residents have feared that the new monument will curtail historical land uses such as logging, hunting and snowmobiling.  Additionally, opponents have claimed the designation will diminish the logging and paper industries.   But supporters point to recent media reports of visitor increases to the monument area since the designation and the corresponding benefits to local businesses.

On February 14, 2017, Maine Governor Paul LePage took the unprecedented step of sending a letter to President Trump requesting a reversal of the Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument designation. Some western congressional delegations, including those from Utah, have also sought to unwind certain designations and to restrain presidential authority under the Act.

In the history of the Act, however, no president has reversed the designation of a national monument.  In fact, there is no language in the Act that authorizes a president to reverse a designation, and such action would likely be met with a swift legal response.   Similarly, any attempts by Congress to curtail presidential use of the Act would likely generate spirited debate.   For the time being, however, designations under the Act remain a powerful and unusually swift vehicle of resource conservation.

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