After several months of study, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is said to have decided on substantially cutting down the area of lands that presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have protected through the Antiquities Act.
Two of the four monuments Zinke wishes to reduce are those established by recent Democratic presidents. Highest on the list: Bears Ears National Monument, set aside for protection by President Obama. If Zinke and the President get their way, places like Bears Ears in Utah and Gold Butte in Nevada may now be re-opened to commercial mineral and resource extraction.
In a previous post, I outlined how the Act has been implemented since Roosevelt’s administration (it was a Republican-sponsored piece of legislation) by presidents who have responded to the public’s desire to see places with culturally sensitive landmarks and archaeological features preserved for future generations.“Iowa’s Place in Repatriation”), cultural preservation got its start in Iowa when Congressman John F. Lacey, a Republican representative, pushed to create the Antiquities Act. Republicans from Roosevelt to Lacey and Taft all saw that protection of western lands were a necessary part of legislating for “the greater good.” As Roosevelt said when he set aside parts of the Grand Canyon for protection: “I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country—to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.”
Certainly Secretary Zinke is right when he says, “No President should use the authority under the Antiquities Act to restrict public access, prevent hunting and fishing, burden private land, or eliminate traditional land uses, unless such action is needed to protect the object.”
The law states: “the limits of [monuments] in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” But also says that private land may be caught up in the process: “When such objects are situated upon a tract . . . held in private ownership, the tract, or so much thereof as may be necessary for the proper care and management of the object, may be relinquished to the Government.”
Yet several of Zinke’s statements regarding his decision seem to ignore this provision and suggest a highly politicized process. Instead of simply acknowledging that many citizens have written to protest the changes to the boundaries of places like Bears Ears, Zinke interpreted their disagreement as some sort of conspiracy:
Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments and demonstrated a well-orchestrated national campaign organized by multiple organizations (Washington Post, 8/24/17).
Where else are everyday Americans who want to preserve sacred lands and archaeological wonders to turn? We don’t have as many lobbyists on K Street. Plus, much of our lobbying is done in the open, in letter writing campaigns and blogs like this one. We don’t have access to the golf clubhouses where deals involving the public interest are now routinely made.
This debate is about much more than balancing environmental protections with the needs of local farming and mining interests. The Antiquities Act is all about protecting those “objects of cultural patrimony” that inhere in the land itself—pictographs, earthworks, human remains, artifacts.
These objects need the special protection a monument designation provides precisely because they do not easily fall under the guidelines of NAGPRA, especially if the land in question is not federal land. Those who would claim that their rights to “improvement” are being violated by such monument designations often claim an ancestral right to the land. The problem with such claims, however, is that much of land use in the west is predicated upon ignoring earlier treaties the U.S. made with Indian tribes in the nineteenth century.
In an ideal world, those of us who wish to see sacred sites and objects of cultural patrimony be protected would simply write our representatives and eventually have legislation written to that effect. There would be compromises, to be sure, but in the end, both the rancher and worshiper would have land enough to peaceably coexist.
But we live in an era of legislative “under-reach” that almost guarantees nothing will get done in this regard. The U.S. Senate couldn’t even find a way to hold hearings for a Supreme Court nominee, something the Constitution lists as part of their job. How could they possibly act on something like this, an issue that requires careful thought, historical knowledge, and cultural sensitivity?
Although it is being marketed under the guise of local autonomy, this executive action is simply a disguised form of depatriation—the clawing back of Indian homelands into the maw of corporate interests. Repatriation law is founded on the right of peoples to declare sovereignty over those objects of cultural patrimony that have been unjustly alienated from them. More fundamentally, it posits a homeland to which such items may be returned.
Under Mr. Zinke’s plan, American Indians will have fewer places to worship and less land to spare for the bones of their ancestors.