Donald Trump’s re-examination of Bears Ears Monument in Utah, covered by the Antiquities Act, reminded me why the Antiquities Act had been created in the first place in 1903.
THE HOMESTEAD ACT
Before there was an Antiquities Act, there was a Federal Homestead Act of 1862, where the Federal Government encouraged people to settle in the newly acquired U.S. lands in the West. Aimed primarily at farmers, offering 160 acres free if developed within five years, it was a benefit people took seriously. And it was a mind set:
the government wanted the newly opened western lands used and exploited for a developing economy.
Exploitation was taking place everywhere, including the Yosemite Valley in California, considered a uniquely beautiful treasure. Because of the Homestead Act, Yosemite was being cut up by homesteaders, railroads, mining and sheep herding interests.
THE YOSEMITE GRANT
There was no existing law to preserve Yosemite from exploitation. Something needed to be done. In 1864, two years after the Homestead Act, the Yosemite Grant was created, which removed Yosemite from development and gave it to the State of California as a State Park.
The Yosemite Grant was signed in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln and introduced a new and very controversial concept: the ability of the Federal Government to acquire State land without payment by the Federal Government. Once the concept was accepted, it was also used as a legal precedent in 1872 to establish Yellowstone National Park, nationalizing lands that were once controlled by Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
THE CAMPING TRIP THAT MADE HISTORY
In May 1903, a Southern Pacific Railroad train from San Francisco arrived at the little town of Raymond, California, formerly known as Wildcat Station. On board the train was the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, with thirty Cavalry escorts and one lone naturalist, John Muir.
Departing the steam train, the President and Muir with others of his party were placed in stage coaches to ride another exhausting 65 miles to the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite. There, a camp was established and the exhausted President retired for the evening with instructions not to be disturbed. Roosevelt slept on 40 blankets, piled up for a bed. There was still snow on the ground.
During their three-day trip, Roosevelt and Muir avoided the busy Wawona Hotel, built in 1876, to avoid the crowds and keep in the spirit of nature. Roosevelt wanted what he called a “roughing trip.” Many people knew the President was visiting Yosemite and wanted to see him. Keeping him away from crowds was part of the duties of Charlie Leadig, the local guide.
The next morning at 6:30 AM, Roosevelt, Muir and a small party began traveling the Lightning Trail on horseback. In the Bridalveil Meadows, they plowed through five feet of snow. It was still snowing when they arrived for the evening at what is today Glacier Point Camp.
That night, a crackling campfire provided warmth from the snowy chill as Roosevelt and Muir talked and talked. It was an animated, excited conversation, where both men seemed to want to talk at the same time, according to a witness.
Muir and Roosevelt discussed the idea of preserving important forests in other parts of the United States. Out of this exchange came the idea that Yosemite should be a National Park instead of a State Park. It snowed 5 inches that night and the next morning the ground was frozen. But an idea was born, and shortly after, Yosemite was removed from the jurisdiction of California and became a National Park. The change stirred Roosevelt’s thinking.
THE NATIONAL ANTIQUITIES ACT
Three years later in 1906, Congress passed, and President Roosevelt signed, the National Antiquities act, which said, in part:
“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.”
Interestingly, the Act does not give the President the power to reduce or eliminate anything that has been established by the Act or enacted to by previous Presidents. The President can only act on the powers granted him by established law.
After signing the Antiquities act, Roosevelt moved quickly to protect 18 other national treasures he felt were threatened, including: Grand Canyon, Arizona; Devils Tower, Wyoming; Gila Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico; Tonto Cliff Dwellings, Arizona; Pinnacles, California and also Mesa Verde in Colorado.
OPPOSITION TO CONSERVATION
Not everyone was thrilled with protecting the land. In those days, the natural resources of the United States were available for the taking. Lumber interests saw their endless supply of trees potentially limited. Mining interests railed against having to ask permission to take minerals out of the ground. The West was founded on a free range of open grazing. Now, the Federal government was reaching into sovereign States and claiming large sections of land, which had previously been considered exploitable by the citizens of the state.
As I wrote in a previous blog, there are forces that would destroy the natural views of the Grand Canyon by building a hotel and cable car in plain sight. In Theodore Roosevelt Park in the Dakota Badlands, oil-drilling rigs can be currently viewed from every angle.
Today, commercial forces keep pushing against preservation and President Trump seems to be opening up a conversation that many fear will reduce public lands. I hope everyone is misinterpreting his investigation, because I have visited many of our National Parks and Monuments and they are a national treasure, part of what makes me proud of our country.
Placing important lands under Federal Control is what keeps Native American cliff dwellings and petroglyphs from being shooting targets. It’s what keeps the beautiful redwoods from being turned into decks and siding, fantastic natural rock formations from being dynamited for minerals. I believe that National lands give all Americans a pride of ownership.
JOHN MUIR’S DOG STORY
Around that campfire in 1903, John Muir also told President Roosevelt about a theory he had on how Yosemite had been created. He believed the mountains had been carved by ancient glaciers long gone. In 1879, Muir had traveled to Glacier Bay in Alaska to walk on the glaciers and learn about them at first hand.
Out of his adventure came a short story Muir wrote, about a feisty small dog who wouldn’t go away and kept following Muir into very dangerous places.
The story is called “Stickeen” and it one of our most popular audiobooks, and, also our least expensive audiobook. You can hear a preview of Stickeen’s story here:
and you can inexpensively download it from Audible here:
My thanks to the Sierra Club for including our Listen To Read audiobook “Stickeen” to their list of audio visual materials, in connection with their John Muir exhibit: http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit