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These iconic national parks faced vehement attacks when they were first protected

History proves tired anti-conservation platitudes wrong

Grand Canyon National Park | W. Tyson Joye, NPS

As Americans celebrate National Park Week, one particular architect of our nation’s parks and protected lands deserves mentioning — the Antiquities Act, which we can thank for protecting dozens of national parks. Under the Trump administration the Antiquities Act, America’s bedrock conservation law, has come under attack as anti-conservation opponents work to unravel national monuments and undermine the Act itself.

One of the most pivotal pieces of conservation legislation ever passed, the Antiquities Act allows the president to directly preserve “objects of historic and scientific interest” as national monuments. Since its inception in 1906, 16 presidents have protected 157 monuments under its authority. While national parks are designated exclusively through congressional legislation, 28 of the nation’s 59 national parks were first preserved as national monuments using the Antiquities Act. Without this important conservation tool, these places would look substantially different from the iconic landscapes Americans and visitors from around the world have come to love.

Each year, the West’s national parks and monuments see over 112 million visits. Given the overwhelming popularity of these lands today, it is often forgotten that for over 100 years conservation critics have opposed virtually every attempt to protect public lands for future generations.

Here are two iconic national parks that sparked heated criticism and doomsday predictions: that conservation will devastate economic activities. Today, each park is responsible for millions of dollars in visitor spending and thousands of jobs. Time has proven even the most vocal opponents wrong.

Grand Canyon National Park


Grand Canyon National Park

In the second half of the 19th century, commercial interests coalesced in opposition to efforts to protect the Grand Canyon: mining prospectors, cattle grazers, and railroads all eyeing tracts of land in what is now one of America’s most cherished landscapes. In 1897, the Williams Sun called the push to protect the area a “fiendish and diabolical scheme,” exclaiming that Arizona’s future depended “exclusively upon the development of her mineral resources.”

“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

President Theodore Roosevelt at the Grand Canyon, 1903

The vocal opposition to conservation efforts resulted in an arduous process on the way to permanent protection. The first legislation to protect the canyon as a “public park” was introduced in the Senate in 1882, but it wasn’t until 1908 that President Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act, signed into law just two years earlier, to protect the canyon as a national monument.

By the 1910s, even the local interests who had once been uncompromisingly opposed to protection were satisfied after it became apparent that rising visitation to the canyon would boost the state’s service industries and fill local coffers. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill designating Grand Canyon National Park after it easily passed out of Congress.

Today, Grand Canyon National Park sees about 5.9 million visits annually. Each year visitors spend upwards of $648 million in local communities and help maintain 9,779 jobs.

Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve


Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve | NPS

In 1924, Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work asked President Calvin Coolidge to order a temporary mineral withdrawal in Glacier Bay, Alaska, to allow the department to study the available resources in the region. The request came at the behest of the campaign to protect Glacier Bay as a national monument. Conservationists maintained that protecting Glacier Bay would boost, not impair, local economic development as tourists flocked to the region. Local homesteaders, drawn by the promise of gold, were outraged by the president’s withdrawal. The editor of the Alaska Daily Empire went so far as to call it a “monstrous crime against development and advancement” and ridiculed the proposal to protect the area’s glaciers, which “none could disturb if he wanted.”

“The fact is, Glacier Bay National Park fuels the economy of Gustavus.”

Wayne Howell, Former Vice Mayor of Gustavus, 2006

At the time, gold mining was common in the area, and homesteaders following the gold vehemently opposed rumors of a national monument designation. Through the tireless advocacy of the Ecological Society of America, the Coolidge administration received more letters in support of monument designation than any preceding conservation campaign. In 1925 Glacier Bay supporters harvested the fruits of their labor: a national monument designation from President Calvin Coolidge.

Today, Glacier National Park & Preserve sees 520,000 visits annually. Each year visitors spend upwards of $112 million in local communities and help maintain 2,013 jobs.

Thankfully, America’s great conservation leaders had the foresight and courage to protect our nation’s iconic lands in the face of intense hostility from pro-development and anti-conservation interests. If our national leaders of yesterday had heeded the demands of these conservation opponents, the West’s backbone — from Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon and from Canyonlands to California’s redwoods — would have remained unprotected and open to the pressures of development and privatization.

Bears Ears National Monument | Bob Wick, BLM

Most recently, the Antiquities Act was used by President Barack Obama to protect Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. The designation has faced attacks from local anti-conservation interests, echoing the same tired predictions of economic decline. Bowing to the shortsighted pressures of Bears Ears opponents, the Trump administration eliminated over a million acres of protections, replacing the monument with two smaller areas, just one year after its designation. The move — believed by most legal scholars to be an illegal action — marked the largest elimination of protected public lands in the nation’s history.

Time and time again knee-jerk fears of economic stagnation have been soundly rebuked by the significant economic successes of America’s public lands. Instead of cutting short the stories of places like Bears Ears National Monument, policymakers should be searching for ways to amplify the long-term and sustainable economic benefits of America’s protected lands.

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Lucy Livesay

Lucy Livesay

Policy and Communications Manager | Center for Western Priorities | Denver, CO