On July 10, President Barack Obama designated three new national monuments, including one in Nevada — Basin and Range. He took this action under the U.S. Antiquities Act.
This is unusual for a couple of reasons. One is that rarely has the United States protected basins in national monuments or parks. And second, Nevada has received fewer national monument designations than many states. Previously in Nevada, the Lehman cavern (grandly called “caves”) was designated by President Warren G. Harding on Jan. 24, 1922. It was incorporated into Great Basin National Park in 1986. Death Valley National Monument in California and Nevada, designated by President Herbert Hoover on Feb. 11, 1933, was also later upgraded to a national park, in 1994. Tule Springs Fossil Beds became a national monument on Dec. 19 last year.
When Obama acted, Nevada Republicans reacted angrily.
U.S. Rep. Joe Heck: “Yet the president, with the stroke of a pen, has bypassed Congress yet again and ignored any input from Nevadans on this designation.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei: “I guess I missed the Nevada delegation meeting to discuss the second largest conservation withdrawal in the history of the state.”
U.S. Rep. Cresent Hardy: “We need to make sure people have local input instead of someone just coming in with the stroke of a pen in the middle of the night as a political favor for someone.”
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller: “With the stroke of a pen, President Obama has bypassed Congress and unilaterally restricted the use of over 700,000 acres of Nevada’s public land.”
If Nevadans were not consulted, which is far from established — a public meeting with deputy interior secretary Michael Connor was held in Las Vegas in February to discuss protecting public lands in Nevada, including Basin and Range — it is because Congress, not the president, set the law up that way.
If Congress was bypassed, it’s because the law passed by Congress specifically provides for that bypass. Forty-five years ago, scholar Ronald Lee wrote that the Antiquities Act was enacted by Congress in 1906 after efforts by “a whole generation of dedicated effort by scholars, citizens, and members of Congress … This public understanding, achieved only after persistent effort in the face of much ignorance, vandalism, and indifference, was a necessary foundation for many subsequent conservation achievements.” The act has been used by several presidents and Congress strengthened its provisions in 1979 by enacting the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
Title 16, section 431 of the United States Code reads, in part, that the “President of the United States is authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” (emphasis added).
Congressmembers Heck, Hardy, Amodei and Heller have all sponsored or co-sponsored measures to change this law, but in spite of overwhelming GOP majorities have failed to do so.
What is of greater concern is the possibility that a mile-long architecture work of art by Michael Heizer called “City” will be brought under the protection of the national monument. (Contrary to news reports, it is not now part of the national monument.) Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan, Conservation Lands Foundation director Brian O’Donnell, and environmental journalist Jon Christensen are among those who have called for Antiquities Act protection for “City” and there is one news report that the work of art will be donated to the U.S. government.
“City” was created in the past four decades with private money and is closed to the public. It may be worthy of protection, but it should not be allowed to piggyback on a national monument to accomplish that. The Antiquities Act is called by that name for a reason. It is used to protect the petroglyphs on Basin and Range and other national monuments. Its purpose is not to protect the modern works of people.
The advocates of “City” need to find another way to do something about the Heizer work. Private sources paid for the creation of “City,” and its protection is now in their hands, not the taxpayers. If they want the government to take over that job, it should be done with something other than national monument status.
Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.