In his last weeks in office, President Obama has extended his legacy to include national monuments in keeping with presidential traditions going back over a century. Two large tracts of land with more than 1.6 million acres in Nevada and Utah will now be preserved for future generations.
“Today, I am designating two new national monuments in the desert landscapes of southeastern Utah and southern Nevada to protect some of our country’s most important cultural treasures,” the president said in a statement, “including abundant rock art, archeological sites, and lands considered sacred by Native American tribes. Today’s actions will help protect this cultural legacy and will ensure that future generations are able to enjoy and appreciate these scenic and historic landscapes.”
Furthermore, the President has established a Bears Ears Commission, “to ensure that tribal expertise and traditional knowledge help inform the management of the Bears Ears National Monument and help us to best care for its remarkable national treasures.”
The power of national monument creation is an executive branch authority designated by the Antiquities Act of 1906. The act gives the President of the United States the authority to create national monuments by presidential proclamation from public lands, and is frequently used to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features.
It was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, who used the act to declare Devils Tower in Wyoming as the first national monument.
Bears Ears has been in the works for the better part of a decade. According to National Geographic, the site is extremely dense with archaeological sites and treasures, and has been under threat of looting for some time. National Geographic explained that, according to Josh Ewing, executive director of the group Friends of Cedar Mesa, the cultural density is so high that you “could combine all of the archaeological sites found in all Mighty 5 national parks in Utah, and there’d still be more in Bears Ears.”
Equally rich in cultural treasures, Gold Butte has been the site of illegal digging and has been more or less unprotected since the Bundy standoff a couple of years ago. It has at least one endangered species in need of protection.
Both parks still require congressional approval, as well as confirmation by the President-Elect. But no previous president has ever tried to terminate a national monument, according to National Geographic, and while Congress could attempt to reduce the size of or funding for either monument, “representatives might be reluctant to be seen as undoing protections for majestic landscapes.”