for the greater good

balancing preservation and development in national monuments

Joshua Tree National Park, 2010 (Image source: the author)

On April 26, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13792, directing the Secretary of the Interior to review certain National Monuments designated or expanded under the Antiquities Act of 1906, including those designations and expansions made since January 1, 1996, those that cover more than 100,000 acres, and those made seemingly without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders.

To many of us in the heritage preservation industry, this Executive Order is seen as direct and credible threat to the Antiquities Act and especially to monuments designated in recent years to protect sacred American Indian sites and cultural resources. Included on the list is Mojave Trails National Monument, designated last year and located adjacent to one of my favorite places on earth: Joshua Tree National Park (seen in the featured image above and formerly a National Monument).

The Secretary of the Interior is now carrying out Executive Order 13792 by requesting comments on National Monuments through regulations.gov. Of particular note in both the Executive Order and the request for comments, comments on Bears Ears National Monument are due before May 26 in order to meet the Executive Order’s requirement for an interim report by early June, while comments on the remaining National Monuments are not due until before July 10.

Bears Ears National Monument (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Bears Ears National Monument was designated by President Obama at the request of a number of American Indian tribes. It encompasses over 1.3 million acres and includes two prominent mesas in southeast Utah that together look like bear’s ears on the landscape. This designation has pitted American Indian tribes against development interests worried about the federal government taking private property and obstructing business interests. (The New York Times recently published an article and video on the matter here.)

Given the fast-tracked request for comments on this National Monument and Secretary Zinke’s finger wagging at a woman requesting information about whether he intended to meet with the tribes, I suspect the recommendation for Bears Ears was decided before the ink on the Executive Order was dry. At this point, I hope the result will be a boundary adjustment rather than full rescinding of the Bears Ears National Monument designation, which would set a horrible precedent.

While I understand concerns about property rights, I also know that preserving our nation’s cultural heritage — both tangible and intangible — benefits everyone. I truly believe the federal government, if it truly embraced the idea of historic preservation as envisioned many years ago, could adequately balance preservation with the rights of private property owners, businesses, and local, state, and tribal governments. Unfortunately, not all federal agencies have embraced the idea that preserving our nation’s heritage will improve our nation. And, sadly, designation of National Monuments without adequate resources or planning tools in place has only provided ammunition to be used against the federal historic preservation program.

As an architectural historian and preservation specialist, I believe the Antiquities Act of 1906 is a critical tool in preserving cultural resources throughout the United States. My comments to the Department of the Interior can be seen in full on my blog. In short:

  • I support the Antiquities Act of 1906 as one of the first steps to preserving cultural, historic, and environmental resources on federal lands for public benefit.
  • Based on my experience, I believe National Monument designations over the last two decades have adequately considered the concerns of citizens, businesses, private property owners, and local, state, and tribal governments.
  • I see no reason to modify National Monument designations made since January 1, 1996, and urge the Department of the Interior to seek financial and human resources to adequately maintain all of our public lands and resources.

Going forward, I recommend the President and the executive branch continue to carefully consider designation of new National Monuments as well as decisions to divest in federal lands. Property acquisition and disposal should always be carefully considered under both the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. Further, those responsible for management of National Monuments should be adequately armed with Cultural Resource Management Plans that allow for balancing resource preservation with the other public interests of citizens, businesses, and local, state, and tribal governments.

I encourage all of you to consider responding to the Department of the Interior’s request for comments. Whether you support preservation or increased development, our federal lands belong to you and your voice is important.

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