I meant to write about this last week but then had out of town visitors and didn't get around to it. But you don't want excuses! You want information! So I bring you a (slightly) dated entry on some news from last Friday.
On October 10, President Obama announced he would use his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to turn approximately 350,000 acres of national forest land in California's San Gabriel Mountains into a national monument. Those 350,000 acres are now permanently protected - no new development, no new mining claims - for the purposes of increased recreation and improved opportunities and access, especially for people living near those mountains.
Personally, I find this pretty exciting - when I lived in Pasadena, the San Gabriels (which are northeast of LA) were right out my front door. They're an imposing wall of a mountain range, rising quickly from nearly sea level up to 6,000 feet in elevation. From a distance, they look dry and foreboding, almost impenetrable. But up close, you can find all kinds of canyons and ravines that are much more lush than you would ever expect in such an arid place. Hundreds of miles of trails criss-cross these peaks, which also serve as a home to some of California's endangered species (like the condor), as well as provide about 30 percent of LA's drinking water.
And what's really cool is that 15 million people live within ninety minutes of those mountains. LA County is one of the poorest in California. It's among the most disadvantaged in the nation when it comes to access to parks and outdoor spaces for minorities and kids. The San Gabriels are one of the biggest open spaces available to Angelenos and, by preserving these mountains, the administration ensures that this area will have more resources for maintenance, restoration, education and access. (Although I do wonder about those people who don't have cars available to use - does this really improve things for them?)
All in all, though, this is a pretty neat development, both for LA and for public lands. The national park system and outdoor recreation as a whole suffer from a lack of racial and economic diversity. Having open land and recreational spaces that are more easily available to poor and minority communities can only mean good things. More on this in a future post - we have someone coming to talk to our fellowship about just this issue later this week.
For now let's turn back to that Antiquities Act - the legislation that gave the president the right to create this national monument in the San Gabriels.
In 1906, Congress passed a bill allowing the president to set aside chunks of public land for the protection of landmarks, structures, areas of historical or natural importance, or scientific or ecological significance. The bill also established penalties for destroying or taking objects from these areas and only granted permits for archeological excavation to reputed scientific and educational institutions, "with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects, and that the gatherings shall be made for permanent preservation in public museums."
This legislation grew out of a desire to protect certain areas (especially Native American ruins in the Southwest) from trophy hunters, vandalism and destruction. President Theodore Roosevelt - widely considered America's "Conservationist President" - signed it into law within hours of its arrival on his desk on June 8, 1906. Roosevelt didn't waste any time putting it to use, either. In September of that same year, he set aside Devil's Tower in Wyoming as a National Monument. He went on to create 17 more of these national monuments before he left power in 1909. Among those were some HUGE chunks of land - including 800,000 acres in and around the Grand Canyon - which Roosevelt defended using this clause from the new law (emphasis mine):
That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected...
It's not entirely clear if the original architects of the Antiquities Act intended for such enormous withholdings to be declared national monuments. The historical records from the time show some squabbling over the final wording - they may have expected only smaller parcels to be protected. However you have to wonder, given President Roosevelt's activist nature, if there wasn't some inkling of what might happen. But there really wasn't much opposition - a miner brought suit in federal court, claiming the president overstepped his bounds, but the Supreme Court ruled (unanimously) in favor of the Antiquities Act, a ruling it has stuck to in every challenge going forward.
Following in Roosevelt's footsteps, 16 presidents (excluding Nixon, Reagan and George H. W. Bush) have reserved millions of acres as national monuments, some of which have later become national parks. Obama's action on the San Gabriel Mountains brings the number of national monuments named in his administration up to 13, for a total of 230 million acres. He says he's not done. (And - for the record - his predecessor, George W. Bush was no slouch in this department. W set aside 200 million acres).
Stop for a moment, though, and think about those three words from the clause above - smallest area compatible. They're pretty incredible. That phrase is so subjective, so unlimited, so imprecise. And its presence in the Antiquities Act has given numerous presidents a tremendous amount of latitude in preserving some of the most iconic and beautiful scenery we have. The original framers may not have intended things to go this way but, as a nation, we should be grateful that phrase made the cut. Those lands are ours to visit and breath in and enjoy for generations to come - which is no small thing.