Closing Range

Righting Monumental Wrongs

Honest observers realize the Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, has devolved into a blunt force political weapon

Late in April, President Trump signed an executive order commanding a review of 27 National Monument designations, specifically those made since 1996 affecting over 100,000 acres. Greens are reacting like they’ve had an arm shot off, of course.

However, honest observers realize the Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, has devolved into a blunt force political weapon—favored by Democratic presidents hoping to delight wealthy urban Greens while stomping down local, mainly Republican communities. That’s not coincidence.

The Act started out all right, aimed at saving “significant natural, cultural or scientific features” on federal lands, such as, say, the Grand Canyon, in an era when the robber barons needed to be reined in. It was also intended to be limited in scope, designating monuments “the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” Sounds reasonable, right?

Well, not for long. In Wyoming, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, Jr., created a front company (The Snake River Land Company) to secretly buy up 36,000 acres of Depression-stressed ranches in the 1930s, intending to add these private lands to Grand Teton National Park, created in 1929. Tellingly, locals got wind of Rockefeller’s plan and rose in opposition.

Congress balked, as was its duty, until 1943 when Rockefeller threatened President Franklin Roosevelt with sale on the open market. FDR then overrode Congress with the Antiquities Act, designating Rockefeller’s land plus another 180,000 acres of National Forest as monument. In 1950, FDR and Rockefeller’s package was finally added to Grand Teton, but only on the condition that no more monuments could be designated in Wyoming without consent of Congress. And none have since been created.

The result? Jackson Hole is the most yuppified, elitist, tourist-trappy corner of Wyoming. What if there were still working ranches in that country?

So, here in Montana, there’s the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

In the late spring of 2000, after months of monument rumors, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt himself swooped into Great Falls for a jam-packed “listening session” at the College of Great Falls.

I attended, witnessing what one would expect when a swarm of national political professionals swoops down upon local yokels. Monument supporters all wore green buttons while opponents had yellow strips of paper pinned on their chests. Now, who do you suppose Secretary Babbitt randomly chose to call upon to spill their guts? Good guess.

After a couple of hours of stage-managed kabuki, people began walking out – none with green buttons, of course. I then managed to weasel my way into the back of the main hall, seeing a number of “team yellow” people standing under the back spotlights, waving their arms, with people pointing at them for recognition. “Gee, shoulda brought flashlights, kids.”

The low point came when, up from the dark in the middle of the auditorium, a tall lady with long, dark hair and about fifty pounds of silver jewelry raped from the earth stood up, languidly raised her hand, and Mister Secretary Babbitt immediately responded: “Yes, ma’am?”

“I’m Gloria Flora!” Oh, the screams of delight – do you suppose the fix was already in? Sure, even though the Secretary pretended otherwise, calling upon the audience to “agree the Montana congressional delegation should introduce legislation, and that’ll keep Bruce Babbitt and his monument crowd out of here.”

Keep in mind that Secretary Babbitt came to Clinton’s Interior from the League of Conservation Voters. There, in 1991 he introduced the League’s environmental scorecard with “We must identify our enemies and drive them into oblivion.”

None of Montana’s three then-Congresscritters dared introduce the legislation Babbitt wanted. Doing so would be political suicide. But Montana voters mattered not at all to Bruce Babbitt, or his legacy-minded boss. Three days before Bill Clinton left office, he signed Proclamation 7398 designating the Breaks monument, 495,000 acres of which about 118,000 acres are state and private (82,000 acres) lands – hardly the “smallest area compatible.”

Doing such a thing, against the wishes of those citizens who would be most affected, was an act of dictatorship, a monumental wrong that needs to be righted.