America's National Monuments
The Politics of Preservation
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THIS IS THE STORY of the American national monuments and the way in which they became an important part of the American preservation movement. The evolution of the monument category reveals the gradual awakening of government officials and the public to the importance of a broadly based approach to federal preservation, while the areas preserved mirror the changing values of American society. The lessons it shows are less those of participatory democracy than of individual perceptions of social obligation, less those of the moment than of the future. Although everyone recognizes the national parks as American treasures, the national monuments are evidence of the story of federal preservation from inside the government—the vision of a few that has become a generally held social objective.

The law that allowed this "inside" form of preservation, An Act for Preservation of American Antiquities, more commonly known as the Antiquities Act of 1906, has been undervalued, ignored, and discounted by both contemporary observers and historians. The Antiquities Act, in fact, is the most important piece of preservation legislation ever enacted by the United States government. Although its title suggests significance only in archaeological matters, in practice the law became the cornerstone of preservation in the federal system. Without it, there would have been little flexibility in the preservation process, and many areas of significance would have been destroyed long before Congress passed legislation to protect them.

The passage of the Antiquities Act created a mechanism through which federal officials, interested professionals, and other special-interest groups could achieve preservation goals without waiting on popular or congressional consensus. The law provided for the establishment of national monuments by executive proclamation, creating a system to ensure preservation in ways that individual national park bills could not. This gave the preservation constituency a special voice in the process of selecting and designating national monuments.

The Antiquities Act preserved much more than archaeological areas. The law is the tool by means of which the broadest category of park areas ever created has been established. It allows the president of the United States to permanently reserve public lands with significant prehistoric, historic, or natural features. There are few statutory limits upon this power; the only restrictive clause in the law limits the monuments to "the smallest area compatible" with their management. This has given federal administrators a flexibility that no other piece of legislation has allowed.

Ironically, there are no intrinsic features that separate the national monuments from the national parks. The difference is in mode of establishment; Congress must pass bills authorizing new national parks. whereas the president can proclaim national monuments with the stroke of a pen. As a result areas with identical features may be found in both categories simultaneously. But the term national park has acquired a clear meaning to Americans of the twentieth century, whereas national monument has not. The federal agencies that have administered the park system—prior to 1916 the General Land Office of the Department of the Interior and after that date the National Park Service—have sanctioned this informal distinction. As a result the two types of areas have developed in distinctly different fashions. National monuments have proliferated since 1906, while the number of parks has increased relatively slowly.

The Antiquities Act has the flexibility that it does as a result of the time in which it became law. The bill passed Congress in 1906, at the height of the Progressive era. That year was also the year of archaeology in Congress, the one moment in American history when archaeological ruins were important enough to merit the actions of national legislators. The establishment of Mesa Verde National Park, the only national park established purely for its archaeological value, followed the passage of the Antiquities Act by less than one month. This interest in preservation of archaeological sites in the Southwest was closely linked to the issues of the time: the closing of the westward frontier and an awakening to the idea that Americans could exhaust the natural attributes of the continent, xenophobia that held that the American West had natural and cultural attributes as spectacular as those of Europe, and the Progressive-era desire for scientific management and centralized authority over the resources of the nation. The window opened, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, and as quickly as issues of archaeological preservation came to the fore, they faded from the position they held in 1906.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 typifies the legislation that emanated from the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, and as a result its limits are similar to those of most of the bills passed during the Progressive era. With its passage, the Act codified established government practice by centralizing power in a group of people presumed to have the best interests of the public in mind. This notion of an elite in the know that should take responsibility for the direction of American society gained credence as a response to the excesses of the private sector during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. A result of the impetus for middle-class reform, the Antiquities Act embodied the middle-class values of 1906, at once its saving grace and its down fall. A product of the move to apply government regulations and scientific principles to natural and cultural resources of the continent, the Act also contained the assumption that the public would obey its dictates simply because it was the law. In this respect the Antiquities Act and its legacy are important parts of the transition from the unrestricted ethos of the nineteenth-century West to the more structured and regulated world that replaced it.

The evolution of the monument category provides one of the clearest pictures of the changing values of American preservation. Because it could be applied to much more than archaeological sites, the Antiquities Act remained useful as the accepted ideas of what constituted an important part of the American past changed. The law was malleable, allowing the differentiation between public and federal visions of the past while providing for both the eccentric view of national significance and a consensus within the federal system. As a result, the Antiquities Act allowed the preservation of different pasts—archaeological, natural, historical, as well as differing aspects of each of these categories. Its amorphous nature gave it a significance that belies its narrow title.

From the beginning, the ease of proclamation and the sheer number of national monuments made the category seem less important than the national parks. While new national parks generally represented a consensus of preservation values, the monuments became a dream land for those with preservation-oriented agendas. The Antiquities Act offered advocates an easy way to accelerate the preservation process, resulting in a category of areas linked more by nomenclature than by content. The emphasis of administrators was on the national parks, leaving the national monuments to grow unchecked. Little of the enthusiasm and boosterism surrounding the national parks was used in promoting the national monuments.

The initial applications of the Antiquities Act were largely in the West, the location of the vast majority of public land in the United States. Because the area east of the Mississippi River had long been settled, the West became the stage upon which this Progressive impulse was implemented. The fate of archaeological ruins in the Southwest concerned congressional sponsors of the Act, and federal bureaus shared this attitude. With the new law, the federal government gained another way to regulate land in less-settled regions of the nation. But the unrestricted power that the Antiquities Act offered meant that its confinement to the West was a temporary condition. From archaeological and western roots, the monument category evolved to include large natural areas, historic places, and nearly every other type of place that had preservation value.

As a result of the ease with which a national monument could be proclaimed, the category served a variety of functions for federal agencies. It began as a storehouse of places preserved for no distinct purpose, gradually growing to include many areas that federal officials sought as national parks, but for which they could not find sufficient support in Congress. Instead of waiting for passage of a bill, federal officials could lobby for a national monument. Because this required only the signature of the president, it was easy to achieve. Yet this way-station status hurt the development of the monuments, particularly after the advent of the National Park Service in 1916. Some of the most spectacular park areas—the Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, the Olympic Mountains, the Petrified Forest, and Chaco Canyon—were once national monuments; all received new designations with congressional approval at a later date.

During the 1920s, when the National Park Service shaped the public image of the park system, the national monuments were largely ignored. In the fifteen years that followed the establishment of the agency in 1916, the national parks became the focus of American travelers. But this distinction did not include the national monuments; except for those in the Southwest, administered by a dedicated iconoclast, the national monuments were largely left out of the development of the park system.

Only with the advent of the New Deal in the 1930s did the monuments become an important part of the park system. The money that federal relief programs pumped into the economy also reached the park system. Civilian Conservation Corps camps were a major source of labor for park projects, and their existence gave high-level Park Service administrators new options. No longer did they have to select areas for development. With the added money from relief programs, there was enough for most of the areas that had the potential to attract visitors.

But the influx of New Deal money changed the park system. Before 1933, "preservation" meant the reservation of areas from settlement or commercial use. After the New Deal, tourist development became an important part of the responsibilities of the Park Service. No longer were areas established and not developed; the construction of facilities for visitors became a primary concern for an agency that to a large extent measured its success in visitation statistics. By the 1950s, the Park Service had spent more than thirty-five years accommodating visitors. Reaching the level of visitation that agency officials sought required continued development of facilities.

This emphasis made the Antiquities Act of 1906 less important than it had been prior to 1933. The law offered no way to fund the development of monuments. It allowed only establishment. In a time when executive fiat did not match the exuberance of the first decade of the twentieth century and funding of park areas required the approval of congressional committees, the advantages that the Antiquities Act offered lost much of their significance. The law became a last resort in cases when rapid presidential action was the only way to attract the attention of Congress.

The evolution in the use of the Antiquities Act mirrors the changing nature of American preservation. At the turn of the century, the simple reservation of threatened areas was the primary objective of advocates of preservation. As the Park Service developed its agenda in the competitive arena of the Washington bureaucracy, its needs changed. A wider range of areas, most of which were not new discoveries of remote places, entered the park system. Fortunately for park proponents, the Antiquities Act was amorphous enough to serve their needs. But with the advent of widespread federal funding for park development, this law and its Progressive-era assumptions became insufficient to meet the new needs of the agency. As a result, the Antiquities Act was used less frequently. Reserved for special circumstances, it became less a part of the continuous process of the growth of the park system.

Since 1906 the expectations of the public and of the federal agencies responsible for preservation have changed dramatically. As the national park system grew, it embodied more and different types of park areas, and the monument category became the place where the General Land Office and the National Park Service experimented with new concepts. Types of areas that more recently have been transferred to the national park category entered the park system as national monuments. The monument category helped broaden the federal vision of preservation. The range of possibilities allowed by the Antiquities Act has made the national monuments the focus of the attention of special-interest groups with agendas that differ from those of federal agencies.

The Antiquities Act and the national monuments became less significant to the goals of the Park Service after the New Deal financed the development of the park system. The New Deal introduced new kinds of areas to the park system and developed them, and after 1945, both the public and the Park Service regarded development instead of the reservation of an area as the paramount consideration of the system. While the Antiquities Act allows for the establishment of areas, it offers no provisions for funding, and as Congress exerted greater control over the operations of the park system, the Antiquities Act has been used less and less frequently. It has been reserved for emergency situations, urgent cases in which there are no other options similar to the circumstances under which a number of the early monuments were proclaimed.

The real achievement of the Antiquities Act of 1906 was that it allowed the establishment of a system of preservation without the approval of Congress. Prior to its existence there had been few mechanisms through which the federal government could permanently and easily preserve the public domain. While the system that the law established did not solve all questions of preservation, it was significantly better than no system at all. The Antiquities Act of 1906 laid the basis for further federal legislation to preserve the cultural resources of the public domain; seventy-three years after the passage of the law, Congress took the next step in that direction with the passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.

The Antiquities Act has been a critical factor in the formation of the national park system as we know it today. Without it, many areas of outstanding natural and cultural significance would have been lost as a result of congressional inertia and indifference. Its significance lies foremost in its contribution to the development of the park system as a broadly based entity. Throughout the twentieth century, the modern federal vision for the preservation of areas of prehistoric, historic, and natural significance has been shaped by the provisions of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The national monuments are the basis of the modern park system, the raw material with which the boundaries of federal preservation have been established.


America's National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation
©1989, Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
©1994, University Press of Kansas
All rights reserved by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

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Copyright © 1989 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Material from this edition published by the University Press of Kansas by arrangement with the University of Illinois Press and may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the author and the University of Illinois Press.