The Antiquities Act – a Primer

Last week we posted an analysis of the recent Executive Order regarding the  Antiquities Act of 1906, 54 U.S.C. §§ 320301 – 320303 (“Antiquities Act” or the “Act”) and the letter we sent to Secretary Zinke highlighting concerns we have regarding recent designations of National Monuments. This week we begin a series of blog posts that examine the history of the Antiquities Act, how the Act fits within other frameworks for protecting and using public lands, how the Act has been misused by recent Presidents, and the ramifications of that misuse. We will conclude the series by proposing a variety of approaches for cabining use of the Antiquities Act to its proper sphere.

Today we begin with some background on the Antiquities Act: its purpose, history, and limitations.

The Antiquities Act provides that

The President may, in the President’s discretion, declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government to be national monuments.[1]

This version of the statute was recodified in 2014, but is nearly identical to the original statutory language, as passed in 1906, in that it applies to objects of historic or scientific interest that are on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government.

The Act provides that the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Secretary of the Army publish regulations to carry out the Act.[2] In practice, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management (Department of the Interior), and the United States Forest Service (Department of Agriculture) manage the majority of the monuments.

The Antiquities Act was enacted in 1906 in response to concerns that Native American artifacts were being pillaged from federal lands.[3]  The Act was originally proposed solely to protect objects of historic interest; but, prior to enactment, was expanded to include objects of scientific interest as well.[4]

Urgency in protecting relics against looting and trafficking was the driving force behind the Act.

These relics are priceless when secured by proper scientific methods, and of comparatively little value when scattered about either in museums or private collections without accompanying records. No scientific man is true to the highest ideals of science who does not protest against this outrageous traffic, and it will be a lasting reproach upon our Government if it does not use its power to restrain it.[5]

Although expansion of the Act to include “scenic areas” was considered, Congress ultimately rejected that proposal and limited the scope of national monuments to “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”[6] Indeed, concern that vast tracts of land could be appropriated under the Antiquities Act was fiercely debated and resolved via the “smallest area” provision. The following dialogue illustrates the concern over expansive use of the proposed Act:

Mr. STEPHENS of Texas. Will that take this land off the market, or can they still be settled as part of the public domain?

Mr. LACEY. It will take that portion of the reservation out of the market. It is meant to cover the cave dwellers and cliff dwellers.

Mr. STEPHENS of Texas. How much land will be taken off the market in the Western States by the passage of the bill?

Mr. LACEY. Not very much. The bill provides that it shall be the smallest area necesstry [sic] for the care and maintenance of the objects to be preserved.

Mr. STEPHENS of Texas. Would it be anything like the forest-reserve bill, by which seventy or eighty million acres of land in the United States have been tied up?

Mr. LACEY. Certainly not. The object is entirely different. It is to preserve these old objects of special interest and the Indian remains in the pueblos of the Southwest.[7]

President Teddy Roosevelt designated Devils Tower in Wyoming, measuring approximately 1,150 acres, as the first historical monument under the Act.[8] Since its founding, Devils Tower National Monument has been expanded once, by approximately 150 acres, through an Act of Congress.

Photograph care of the NPS.

President Roosevelt went on to designate an additional 17 monuments,[9] the largest of which, at roughly 800,000 acres, was the Grand Canyon. That designation was subject to an unsuccessful legal challenge that went to the Supreme Court (Cameron v. United States, 252 U.S. 450 (1920)). The decision in Cameron set the precedent for using the Act to designate large tracts of land as a national monument without reference to a specific historical or scientific object—although, arguably, the Grand Canyon is itself an identifiable object. Congress later incorporated the monument into the Grand Canyon National Park.

From the time of President Taft through the administration of G.H.W. Bush, designations of national monuments ranged from a minimum of zero to a maximum of 15 per president. Designations have not gone unchallenged—particularly when the size of the land withdrawn was extensive and burdensome to the States in which the monuments were situated. But no legal challenge to the proclamation of a national monument has yet been successful. Congress, however, has occasionally stepped in.

For example, when President Franklin Roosevelt designated 220,000 acres of land as the Jackson Hole National Monument, the State of Wyoming objected.[10] Congress also objected to what it viewed as a usurpation of its authority (it had been debating the inclusion of the land into a national park), and for several years thereafter attached provisions to Department of Interior appropriations bills that prohibited expenditures for the monument.[11] Wyoming sued; but the court upheld the designation.[12] Congress eventually passed legislation that restored some of the monument lands to Teton National Forest and merged the rest with Grand Teton National Park. The legislation also prohibited future unilateral presidential use of the Antiquities Act in Wyoming absent express Congressional authorization.[13]

Similarly, when President Carter set aside fifty-six million acres of land in Alaska to simultaneously create 15 national monuments (the high end of the range of designations noted above), the state of Alaska sued, seeking an injunction against President Carter’s use of the Antiquities Act.[14] As in previous cases, the President prevailed.[15] Congress, however, stepped in and repealed President Carter’s proclamations, imposed its own set of protections and uses for the land, and prohibited future withdrawals of Alaska land by the President that exceed 5,000 acres in the aggregate without approval by Congress.[16]

Beginning with President Clinton and continuing through President Obama, the scope and nature of designations began to grow and change. Some designations, such as President Obama’s designation of The Chimney Rock National Monument, encompassing 4,726 acres, or Stonewall National Monument, which encompasses 0.12 acres, appear to be consistent with Congress’ original intent, being limited in size and relevant to discernible “objects of historic interest.” Others, which will be discussed later in this series, departed markedly from the traditional application of the Antiquities Act.

Our series will continue next week with an overview of the environmental and public lands management laws the government currently uses to protect lands in its ownership or control.

Any questions, commentary, or criticisms? Please e-mail us at and/or

Cynthia F. Crawford is a Senior Counsel at Cause of Action Institute.

Kara E. McKenna is a Counsel at Cause of Action Institute. Kara is admitted only in New York and New Jersey. Practice limited to matters and proceedings before United States Courts and agencies. You can follow her on Twitter @Kara_McK

[1] 54 U.S.C. § 320301 (2014).

[2] 54 U.S.C. § 320303.

[3] See Eric C. Rusnack, The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back, Ohio State Law Journal, Vol. 64:669, 2003 at p. 674, n. 23.

[4] Id. at 674-75.

[5] H.R. Rep. No. 59-2224 at 2 (1906) (citing memorandum from Professor Edgar L. Hewett).

[6] Id.; 54 U.S.C. § 320301.

[7] 40 Cong. Rec. 7888 (1906). The version of the bill that was passed by the Senate in 1904 limited withdrawals to 640 acres, but that limitation was not included in the final Act.

[8] Proclamation No. 658, 34 Stat. 3236 (Sept. 24, 1906).

[9] Cong. Research Serv., National Monuments and the Antiquities Act (2017).

[10] Rusnack, supra, at 683.

[11] See David H. Getches, Managing the Public Lands: The Authority of the Executive to Withdraw Lands, Natural Resources Journal, Vol. 22, April 1982, at 304, n. 140.

[12] Wyoming v. Franke, 58 F. Supp. 892 (D. Wyo. 9145).

[13] Id. at 305; 54 U.S.C. § 320301(d) (“No extension or establishment of national monuments in Wyoming may be undertaken except by express authorization of Congress.”).

[14] Alaska v. Carter, 462 F. Supp. 1155 (D. Alaska 1978).

[15] Id. At 1160.

[16] 16 U.S.C. §§ 3101-3223.

Antiquities Act Executive Order—Overwrought Response Disregards Real Risks of Lack of Transparency and Unbridled Presidential Discretion

Since news broke earlier this week that President Trump would be signing an Executive Order (“E.O.”) regarding the Antiquities Act, hysteria has ensued. It’s as if the President had declared a new Oklahoma Land Rush on some of America’s most treasured landscapes, and the backhoes were lined up and waiting for the sound of the gun to start digging up the land.[1] In the 24 hours since its signing, the outcry has reached fever pitch.  Some claim the E.O. is but the first step in giving away the nation’s public lands to corporate interests. Others lament that the E.O. does not go far enough to restore the proper balance among the varied interests involved in public lands management. Either way, such hyperbole misrepresents and overstates what the E.O. actually says and what it will likely achieve in its implementation.

When considering vocal competing views, I often find myself asking “how did we get here?” and “how do we move forward productively?” Regarding national monument designations, the answer to the former is lack of transparency and Presidential accountability. The answer to the latter is more transparency and public involvement in the national monument designation process.

The E.O. directs the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke to review all national monuments created by the Antiquities Act since January 1, 1996, that measure more than 100,000 acres or lacked appropriate public input. The E.O. also directs Secretary Zinke to provide two reports – a 45-day interim report regarding Bears Ears National Monument and 120-day final report regarding all other national monuments. The final report is to include suggestions regarding potential legislative proposals, and executive or other appropriate actions to restore trust between local communities and Washington, give voice to Governors of States and local and Tribal governments who are affected by monument designations, and put America back on track to manage our federal lands in accordance with the traditional multiple-use philosophy. The E.O. does not direct any action regarding any national monument nor direct the Secretary to reach any predefined conclusion. The E.O. is thus a rational first step in clarifying “how we got here,” and “how we move forward productively.” It is not, as some would claim, the beginning of the end for America’s public lands.

Since September 2016, Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) has been investigating the use, misuse, and abuse of the Antiquities Act of 1906, 54 U.S.C. §§ 320301 – 320303 (“Antiquities Act” or the “Act”) by recent presidential administrations. To that end, CoA Institute has submitted over ten (10) Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (“FOIA”), requests to various and executive branch offices agencies – Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”), Department of the Interior (“Interior Dept.”), Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) – involved with national monument declarations. To date, CoA Institute has received several interim releases, including over 1,000 records, but we anticipate that this represents only a small fraction of the records that are responsive to our requests. These records, along with publicly available documents and conversations we have had with local stakeholders in multiple states, preliminarily confirm several concerns and highlight the pressing need for transparency and oversight in the national monument designation process.

The Antiquities Act was intended to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government” by permitting the President to declare such landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest as national monuments.[2] The Act also permits the President to “reserve” land parcels as part of the national monument so long as such parcels are “confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”[3] Alternatively, if the object is not situated on federal land, the object and the land may be relinquished to the federal government.[4]

While such statutory language should limit use of the Antiquities Act, in practice, the Act has been used by presidents to declare or expand national monuments with little more than the stroke of a pen. Since 1996, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have declared over 55 national monuments, many with little or no publicly-available data, analyses, or impact studies to substantiate “the smallest area compatible” with “the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Problematically, some courts have held that the Act does not require the President “to make any particular investigation” prior to a monument being designated.[5] Thus, a President may declare a national monument without any information or data supporting the declaration. Because courts have been reluctant to review monument designations absent facts establishing and identifying lands that were improperly designated,[6] public recourse to challenge designations is essentially nonexistent. Indeed, no such challenge has yet been successful.

Although the bulk of the hysteria surrounding the E.O. relies on the assumption that national monuments are a benign tool for protecting rural land, many Americans would likely be alarmed to learn that under the current statutory and judicial rubric, the Act would permit the establishment of national monuments of a very different kind. For example, by a simple transfer in ownership of the relevant property to the federal government, President Trump could declare Trump Tower or Mar-a-Lago a National Monument by simply parroting a few key phrases in the declaring proclamation. There would be zero need to substantiate the “historical significance” of the property, the appropriate scope of the land included, or the need for that particular form of preservation. And – here’s the kicker – the declaration could include whatever protections and uses he deemed fit (such as requiring searchlights to cast a “protective” glow on the name of the building on a nightly basis) and, according to some, the monument designation could not be revised or reversed by a subsequent President, though there is disagreement on this point. Outrageous? Of course, Possible under the Act as written and applied today? Absolutely.

From a government oversight and transparency perspective, Presidential use of the Antiquities Act is rife with abuse, as major decisions impacting vast public lands, natural resources, property rights, and livelihoods are left to the sole discretion of the President, who is not required to substantiate his designation in any meaningful way beyond the use of a few magic words on the face of the declaring proclamation. Unchecked discretion and lack of recourse to remedy overbroad declarations, has resulted in misuse of the Antiquities Act. Further, as publicly reported, and evident in government records received and reviewed by CoA Institute, monument declarations have been made with little or no consideration of local stakeholders and those most adversely impacted by the designations.

That is why today, CoA Institute submitted a letter to Secretary Zinke highlighting our concerns regarding recent misuse of the Antiquities Act, preliminary results of our ongoing investigations, and recommendations regarding oversight of existing monuments and increased transparency in the designation process.

Any questions, commentary, or criticisms? Please e-mail us at and/or

Cynthia F. Crawford is a Senior Counsel at Cause of Action Institute.

Kara E. McKenna is a Counsel at Cause of Action Institute. Kara is admitted only in New York and New Jersey. Practice limited to matters and proceedings before United States Courts and agencies.

[1] Presidential Executive Order on the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act (Apr. 26, 2017) available at

[2] 54 U.S.C. § 320301 (a).

[3] 54 U.S.C. § 320301 (b).

[4] 54 U.S.C. § 320301 (c).

[5] Tulare County v. Bush, 306 F.3d 1138, 1142 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

[6] Id.

CoA Institute Highlights Problems with Presidents’ Unilateral Designation of Monuments

Washington D.C. – After President Trump yesterday signed an executive order to review previous presidents’ national monument designations under the Antiquities Act, Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke outlining why some designations may have been unlawful.

Signed into law over a century ago, the Antiquities Act authorizes the president to declare federal lands as part of monuments, which restricts how the lands can be used. Records obtained by CoA Institute indicate that some of President Obama’s designations may have resulted from collusion with outside environmental groups, while ignoring feedback from the local stakeholders who would be most harmed.

CoA Institute President and CEO John Vecchione: “Major decisions impacting Americans’ livelihoods, vast public lands, natural resources, and property rights are currently left to the sole discretion of the president. This is contrary to most of our system of government. Presidents failed to substantiate many designations in any meaningful way, beyond the use of a few magic words on the face of the proclamations. Unchecked discretion and lack of recourse to remedy overbroad proclamations has resulted in misuse of the Antiquities Act and undue restrictions on future use of vast swaths of federal lands.”

CoA Institute has submitted more than 10 Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests to various agencies and executive branch offices involved with national monument declarations.

Evident from government records received and reviewed by CoA Institute, monument declarations have been made with little or no consideration of local stakeholders and those most adversely impacted by the designations.  More recent designations, such as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument and the expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument have even been made in direct contravention of longstanding statutory frameworks established by Congress and trusted by local stakeholders.

To date, CoA Institute has received several interim releases, including over 1,000 records, but we anticipate that this represents only small fraction of the records that are responsive to our requests. These records, along with publicly available documents and conversations we have had with local stakeholders in multiple states, preliminarily confirm several of our concerns.

For example, it appears that third-party environmental groups knew about a forthcoming monument designation in the Atlantic Ocean prior to August 2015. However, local fishermen—who would be directly and adversely impacted by the designation— were notified only 12 days before the September meeting. As indicated in records we have reviewed, local fishermen were given only 250 words in a press release informing them of the meeting and seeking input on a then-undefined proposal. In contrast, third party organizations had enough in-depth information in advance of the meeting to build online petitions supporting a monument in the Atlantic Ocean that were pushed out to their members nationwide.

As part of our ongoing oversight, CoA Institute continues to investigate:

  • The role certain Members of Congress played in lobbying President Obama to take unilateral action under the Antiquities Act;
  • Potential collusion between outside groups and the Obama Administration to declare national monuments;
  • Lack of transparency regarding monument designations;
  • Pretextual public hearings relating to predetermined monument designations;
  • The continued acquisition of private lands in and around existing national monuments to expand such monuments; and
  • The legality of agency rulemakings to enforce Antiquities Act designations.

The full letter can be found here

For information regarding this press release, please contact Zachary Kurz, Director of Communications at CoA Institute:

CoA Institute Requests White House Communications with John Podesta, Interest Groups on Controversial National Monument Designations

Washington, DC – Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute) today sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking records of correspondence among the White House, Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and outside interest groups discussing current and proposed national monument designations.

Unconfirmed emails obtained by CoA Institute appear to show John Podesta and White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Managing Director Christy Goldfuss discussing controversial designations of new national monuments and expansion of existing monuments under the Antiquities Act.

The broad use of the Antiquities Act under the Obama administration has raised concerns about the opaque process and lack of consultation with local stakeholders leading up to the president’s designation of new national monuments. If verified, these emails raise additional transparency concerns and the specter of collusion.

Ms. Goldfuss, a White House political appointee, appears to have used her private email account to coordinate with outside interest groups and individuals, including John Podesta, regarding the selection or designation of national monuments. For instance, in one unconfirmed email exchange, Ms. Goldfuss sent a work-related email to Mr. Podesta using her Gmail account in which she stated:

Hi John, . . . It’s all coming together.  I may have an oceans monument question for you soon.  We’re looking at the NE, and it’s messy.  Hope all is well!  We sure do feel your absence now that Kristina is gone.  I always felt like she channeled you so well. Talk soon, Christy.

By using her personal email account to conduct government business, Goldfuss may have violated the Federal Records Act, if she failed to forward those emails to her official government email account so that they can be appropriately archived and searched.

In another unconfirmed email exchange, Mr. Michael Conathan, the Director of Ocean Policy at Center for American Progress, emailed John Podesta with the Subject: “Re: A couple of quick ocean things”:

Hey John, Welcome back to the world outside the White House gates… Jane and I had a good meeting with Christy and the CEQ team, and got over to meet Brian earlier this week, so we’re full steam ahead with the monuments process. Thanks for all your help on that front. …

While the veracity of this email cannot be independently verified, White House visitor logs indicate that Mr. Conathan was at the White House on Feb. 23, 2015 to meet with Hilary Atkin, who, per publically available information, worked for CEQ at the time of the meeting.

To ensure compliance with the law, CoA Institute today requested all communications, including personal emails, relating to the Obama administration’s use of the Antiquities Act to unilaterally proclaim new national monuments.

CoA Institute Assistant Vice President Henry Kerner: “Designating a new area as a national monument should be an open process where the public and local stakeholders have an opportunity to be heard. The public also has a right to know whether decisions to limit public use of federal lands are properly made.  If verified, these personal emails show possible collusion among the Hillary Clinton campaign, the White House, and activist organizations to further the goals of interest groups at the expense of the American people.”

The FOIA is available HERE

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