National monuments under fire

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Maybe, if the review of national monuments ordered by President Donald Trump directly targeted Effigy Mounds or the Herbert Hoover Historic Site, Iowans would be more interested.

But a lack of Iowa sites isn’t reason to be complacent. If the Trump administration chooses to shrink or abolish a national monument, and earns court approval for doing so, precedent will be set, placing the fate of all national monuments in jeopardy.

The reviews, being conducted primarily by the U.S. Department of the Interior and its new secretary, Ryan Zinke, are the result of an April executive order that questions the legitimacy of recent designations under the Antiquities Act of 1906. That’s the law that established the nation’s first historic preservation policy, intended to protect artifacts from would-be looters or vandals. It gives the president authority to set aside for protection “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.”

National Monuments - Effigy Mounds National Monument is situated on the bluffs along the Mississippi River in northeastern Iowa and preserves prehistoric burial mounds. Photographed on Wednesday, April 21, 2010.
Effigy Mounds National Monument is situated on the bluffs along the Mississippi River in northeastern Iowa and preserves prehistoric burial mounds. Photographed on Wednesday, April 21, 2010. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Once designated, the sites become national monuments, assigned to federal agencies for proper care and oversight and protected forever from commercial development or future mineral exploitation.

Before this law a few sites, such as Yellowstone, had been named national parks. But the process was cumbersome and mired in politics. The Antiquities Act streamlined the process, making the designations administrative actions. Soon after President Theodore Roosevelt signed the law, he created 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon.

Fifteen other presidents, Democrats and Republicans, according to National Parks data, have designated 170 national monuments, land and marine.

Once a designation is made, Congress can covert it into a national park, which has happened several times. Boundaries of the sites can also be changed by the president, although none of have done so for more than 50 years.

National Monuments - Tourists walk into the small two room cottage where President Herbert Hoover was born during Hooverfest Saturday, Aug. 2, 2008 in West Branch. The cottage is part of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and Presidential Library and Museum.
Tourists walk into the small two room cottage where President Herbert Hoover was born during Hooverfest Saturday, Aug. 2, 2008 in West Branch. The cottage is part of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and Presidential Library and Museum. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

The question, which courts have not yet answered, is whether a president or his federal agency has the authority to revoke previous designations. Most legal scholars and historians say this isn’t the case, but since the Trump administration began floating the idea of review a small pocket of opposition has begun a different drumbeat.

One of the most outspoken members of the opposition camp is Berkeley law professor John Yoo, the former deputy assistant attorney general who wrote memos in the wake of 9/11 justifying torture of suspected terrorists. He is working with Todd Gaziano, also a previous Justice Department official, who is now the executive director of the Pacific Legal Foundation, an agency that often argues against environmental protections. The duo has provided opinion pieces to larger media outlets and presented or distributed how-to documents to conservative think-tanks.

Iowans should be paying attention. While the immediate impact of these arguments will decide the fate of national monuments primarily in the West, they also will determine the sanctity and permanence of them all.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 5, 2017. Photo credit: Liz Martin & Brian Ray/The Gazette