Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Last Minute Monuments Volume 54 Number 2, March/April 2001
by Mark Rose

Will President Clinton's eleventh-hour use of the 1906 American Antiquities Act lead to a backlash against this venerable legislation? The act, prompted by destruction of archaeological sites in the Southwest, authorizes the president "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures...situated upon lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments...." Theodore Roosevelt used it to create 18 National Monuments, including Chaco Canyon and Gila Cliff Dwellings. Since then, presidents have invoked it to protect sites from Aztec Ruin, to Mound City, to Russell Cave.

As of November 9, 2000, Clinton had created 11 new monuments, including several of archaeological importance: Agua Fria, Canyons of the Ancients, Grand Canyon-Parashant, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Vermillion Cliffs. On January 17, just days before leaving office, he created seven more, including Pompey's Pillar and the Upper Missouri Rivers Breaks, which preserve important Lewis and Clark expedition landscapes.

Reacting to the latest National Monument designations, a Bush-Cheney transition team spokesman said, "We are reviewing all eleventh-hour executive orders, rules, and regulations by the Clinton administration...." Monument designations can only be modified or rejected by act of Congress, something that may be difficult to do given the close split between Republicans and Democrats. Insight on the new administration's intentions may be gleaned from testimony by Gale Norton, Bush's nominee for Secretary of the Interior. Asked by Senator Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, if she would advocate change or repeal of the Antiquities Act, she said, "I would like to see a process of involvement of the people most affected by decisions. ...Whether that would require changes in that statute for the long term is a decision that I have not made...."

Concern that overuse might lead to calls for revision or repeal of the Antiquities Act may have been behind the president's January 10 decision not to use it to further protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, despite an appeal from former president Jimmy Carter. Another last-minute request, from New York senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, asked the president to use the act to protect two historic forts on Governor's Island in New York Harbor. On his last day in office, President Clinton proclaimed 20 acres on the island, including the forts, to be a National Monument.