Fact check: Misleading math on national monuments

Land and water are not the same thing

Clockwise from left: Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, Wikimedia Commons; Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, papahanaumokuakea.gov; Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, NOAA

As President Trump continues his unprecedented and illegal attack on America’s national monuments, he and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are being egged on by the Sutherland Institute, the Utah arm of the Koch brothers’ right-wing policy network.

In a clumsy attempt to justify Secretary Zinke’s secret report to the president, Sutherland’s Matt Anderson is writing op-eds that cite misleading data to claim President Obama used the Antiquities Act in unprecedented ways to “lock up” hundreds of millions of acres of American land.

The reality, however, is that President Obama invoked the Antiquities Act in the same way as his predecessors, protecting land at a similar pace and scale compared to other conservation-minded presidents.

Sutherland’s statistical sleight-of-hand stems from this report that conflates acres of land and acres of water protected using the Antiquities Act. Anderson wrote in The Hill:

“In response to widespread looting and desecration of Native American historical sites near the turn of the 20th century, Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906…. While the intentions of the law were pure, such unchecked, concentrated power has exposed the Act to widespread abuses from presidents of both political parties.”

Nowhere in Anderson’s op-ed does he include the words “water” or “ocean,” even though the data he cites primarily show presidential protections of marine monuments.

This is the misleading chart that Sutherland uses as the basis for its conclusion that the Antiquities Act has been abused in recent years:

Original: Sutherland Institute

A quick reality check shows that these numbers make no sense. The U.S. government oversees 640 million acres of land across the entire country. Fewer than 80 million acres of that have been protected as national monuments. There is simply no way that presidents Bush and Obama could have protected more than 750 million acres of land.

If Sutherland had done an honest apples-to-apples comparison of land protected using the Antiquities Act, this is what they would have found:

Data source: National Park Service

It was President Jimmy Carter who protected an order of magnitude more land than any of his predecessors, setting aside 56 million acres of land, all of it in Alaska. (It was Carter’s invocation of the Antiquities Act that led to the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which provided protection to an additional 157 million acres in the state.)

In this accurate chart, President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act shows him to be among our nation’s most conservation-minded presidents — in line with Bill Clinton and slightly ahead of FDR — but not an outlier by any means.

A word about oceans

This reality does not in any way diminish the importance of the marine monuments protected by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, including Papahānaumokuākea and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. These monuments are crucial to preserving and understanding the biodiversity of our oceans. But it’s important to recognize that America’s land and water are measured on vastly different scales.

Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument, papahanaumokuakea.gov

In the ocean, the U.S. has jurisdiction over natural resources inside the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ), an offshore region extending 200 nautical miles from our coasts. The U.S. EEZ is more than 2.8 billion acres, or about 4.5 times larger than all U.S. public lands combined.

Globally, just three percent of the world’s oceans are set aside with strong protections; scientists recommend protection of at least 30 percent. The vast majority of America’s exclusive economic zones remain open to commercial and recreational fishing today, while our marine monuments set a conservation example for the world.

An honest look at history

If the Sutherland Institute was serious about discussing land protections, they would start with an honest assessment of how the Antiquities Act has been used throughout American history. Since the earliest days of the Act, presidents have used it to protect landscape-scale monuments.

Grand Canyon, Andrew D. White photographs collection, Cornell University

When Teddy Roosevelt set aside 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon in 1908, it was not a popular decision. Mining interests had long declared that Arizona’s future “depends exclusively upon the development of her mineral resources.

But thanks to Roosevelt’s vision, Congress eventually came to recognize the value in protecting the Grand Canyon as a national park, and Presidents Hoover and Johnson both invoked the Antiquities Act to expand it further.

Looking at the history of the Act, it’s clear that landscape-scale protections have always been the norm — here is a list of the largest individual land monument protected by each president:

From Teddy Roosevelt to Barack Obama, presidents have used the Antiquities Act to protect American landscapes at risk of looting, mining, and destruction. Throughout that time, Congress has cycled through periods of effectiveness and periods of extreme gridlock. The less Congress can get done, the more important the Antiquities Act is at any given time.

Over time, history has shown that Congress eventually catches up to presidential protections. That’s why nearly 70 percent of national parks in the west were originally national monuments, protected using the Antiquities Act.

Rather than turning back the clock on America’s conservation legacy, as the Sutherland Institute recommends, now is the time to acknowledge the crucial role the Antiquities Act has played and will continue to play in the decades to come.


Additional research by Andre Miller.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.