We recently began our series of blog posts examining the history, purpose, and limitations of the Antiquities Act of 1906, 54 U.S.C. §§ 320301 – 320303 (“Antiquities Act” or the “Act”). This week we discuss how the Act fits within the variety of other frameworks for protecting and using public lands. So what is the Antiquities Act?

As discussed in our previous posts (here and here), the Antiquities Act permits a President to proclaim “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments. To protect these objects, the President is also permitted to “reserve parcels of land as part of the national monument” subject to the limitation that “the parcels are confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.[1]

These two limitations on designating monuments are designed to reinforce each other. First, the land parcels must encompass “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” This limitation makes sense considering the impetus for the law—the desire to protect Native American artifacts from being pillaged from federal lands and a method for quickly withdrawing such “land[s] from the public domain to preserve archaeological sites.”[2] Second, the parcel must be confined to the smallest area compatible with this purpose—a limitation that only makes sense relative to objects that require “proper care and management . . . to be protected.”

By recent standards, the first national monuments declared under the Antiquities Act were small. Thirty-seven of the first forty declared national monuments measured less than 100,000 acres in total; each monument averaged just 5,350 acres. And the other three? Two of those national monuments were incorporated into Grand Canyon National Park and the third, Mount Olympus, is now part of Olympic National Park.

Despite the modest size of the early national monuments, it only took a little over a decade before the first million-acre-plus monument was declared, Katmai National Monument, which was proclaimed to “preserve an area that is of significant importance in the study of volcanism.”[3]  Like the Grand Canyon and Mount Olympus designations before it, the Katmai declaration offers a small but helpful case study of large-scale monument declarations.

In 1912, Mount Novarupta in Alaska erupted, causing the most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th century (nearly thirty times more powerful than Mount St. Helens) and devastating the surrounding landscape. In the following years, explorers from the National Geographic Society conducted several expeditions into the remote region. As described by one of the explorers, Robert Griggs, “[t]he whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands— literally, tens of thousands— of smokes curling up from its fissured floor.” After his exploration of the region, Griggs, along with the National Geographic Society, lead the campaign to get the Katmai region made into a national park.[4]

National Park Service officials, however, worried that the creation of a new national park in Alaska would burn what limited good will the agency had with Congress.[5] Park Service officials informed the Society that the only possible protection for Katmai would be through the Antiquities Act.[6] At the time, the National Geographic Society proponents were worried about whether an Antiquities Act declaration could cover such a large area but were convinced by Park Service officials that it was the preferred method.[7] The declared monument “embraced little more than the area of active volcanic peaks surrounding Mount Katmai, along with the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and most of Iliuk Arm,”—all identifiable features of established scientific value.[8] Nearly sixty years after its declaration, this large monument was established as a National Park and Preserve by Congress.

The growth in the size and scale of national monuments, and the routine re-designation of large-scale monuments as National Parks, highlight a key issue in the discussion regarding recent use, and possible reform, of the Antiquities Act—namely what type of law is it? Is it an historic preservation law? A public lands management law? An environmental law? Or a little of each? The answer depends on whom you ask. Each alternative has merits and flaws; and therein, we believe, lies the wellspring of debate over the proper purpose of the Antiquities Act.

For example, there is some basis for categorizing the Antiquities Act as an historic preservation program—or at least for arguing that Congress views it as such. In December 2014, Congress passed Pub. L. 113-287 enacting title 54, United States Code, “National Park Service and Related Programs”, as positive law. Although nothing in Pub. L. 113-287 “created new law or changed the meaning or effect of existing law,” it did recodify the Antiquities Act into “National Preservation Programs” alongside historic preservation laws. This arguably leads to a presumption that the Antiquities Act is an historic preservation law.

However, many groups argue that the Antiquities Act is an environmental law, particularly because of its recent stated use as a tool to curb climate change through prohibitions in proclamations barring new oil and gas leasing, and/or mining on monument lands.

In application, the Antiquities Act is also a public lands management law, as declarations of new national monuments have significant impacts on existing public lands management plans.[9]

We will continue discussing how the Act fits within the variety of other frameworks for protecting and using public lands tomorrow.

Any questions, commentary, or criticisms? Please e-mail us at kara.mckenna@causeofaction.org and/or cynthia.crawford@causeofaction.org

Cynthia F. Crawford is a Senior Counsel at Cause of Action Institute.
Kara E. McKenna is a Counsel at Cause of Action Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @Kara_McK


[1] 54 U.S.C. § 320301 (2014).

[2] See Eric C. Rusnack, The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back, 64 Ohio State Law Journal 669, 674 n.23 (2003).

[3] Nat’l Park Serv.,U.S. Presidents and Katmai, https://www.nps.gov/katm/blogs/u-s-presidents-and-katmai.htm (Feb. 14, 2016); Proclamation No. 1487, 83 Stat. 926 (Jan. 20, 1969).

[4] Frank B. Norris, Isolated Paradise: An Administrative History of the Katmai and Aniakchak National Park Units ch. 2 (1996).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] See generally U.S. Dep’t of Ag., San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Management Plan DRAFT Environmental Assessment (Aug. 2016).