Antiquities Act -- Its History and Use

This is a collection of documents related to the history and use of the Antiquities Act of 1906, the first federal statute for the general preservation of archaeological, cultural, historic, and scientific resources. It laid the foundation for conservation and preservation laws passed through the 20th century and remains an important statute into the 21st century.Arguably, it is the most important of the conservation and preservation statutes, yet it is little known outside of specialist circles.

No other law has had such a wide-ranging influence on the preservation of our nation’s cultural and natural heritage. Why is the Antiquities Act so important? There are four basic reasons:

(1) Creation of national monuments. The Act gives the president the power to unilaterally declare, independent of Congress, protected national monuments from tracts of existing federal public land. These monuments range from prehistoric ruins and other objects of antiquity (hence the Act’s name) all the way up to entire landscapes of ecological and scientific importance, covering hundreds of thousands of acres. The Act has been used by presidents to proclaim new national monuments or expand existing ones. These monuments include world-class protected natural areas, many of which have gone on to receive national park status, and cultural sites of international renown.

(2) A foundation for heritage professionalism. The Act provides a legal and public policy foundation for public archaeology in the United States, and for agency involvement in the preservation of historic places and structures. Its provisions have done much to foster the development of the professions of archeology, anthropology, and historic preservation in the United States.

(3) A scientific basis for nature preservation. The Act was the first law to enable the creation of large-scale nature reserves for scientific (rather than scenic or economic) reasons. Not only did it therefore prefigure today’s emphasis on landscape-scale ecosystem conservation by almost a century, it remains a vital tool for such efforts. In fact, over the past 30 years practically the only large-scale nature reserves to be created by the federal government have come as the result of monument declarations under the Antiquities Act.

(4) An important presidential prerogative. The Act established the power of the president to proactively preserve important cultural sites and natural areas (up to and including large landscapes of ecological value) that are threatened with degradation or outright destruction. This “one-way” power — the president can unilaterally establish national monuments, but only Congress can abolish them — is an important legal doctrine that has enhanced the power of the Executive Branch.

Enactment of the Antiquities Act followed a 25-year effort to ensure protection of American archaeological sites and other historic, natural, and scientific resources. It was controversial at the time of its enactment and continues to be so, but such is always the case with landmark legislation in a democratic society. In shaping public policy to protect a broad array of cultural and natural resources, the impact of the Antiquities Act has been unmatched.

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