On this day, 111 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a law that has left us with the impressive natural legacy we now enjoy. The Antiquities Act has been used by 16 presidents to create some of most prized places in America.
Roosevelt became a powerful representative of the culture of wilderness appreciation that had been cultivated since the end of the 19th century. Testaments to his dedication to protecting his nation’s land include 150 national forests, 51 federal bird preserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments equaling more than 230 million acres of public land.
He not only left us with a profound legacy of conservation but also the responsibility of maintaining it. We not only have inherited the many benefits of these lands but also the task of protecting them. Future generations must be given the opportunity to participate in what has become an essential part of our history and culture, and it is our job to deliver that opportunity to them.
At the Grand Canyon on May 6, 1903, Roosevelt made a plea to his nation: “I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature how it is… Leave it as it is… You cannot improve upon it… What you can do is leave it for your children, your children’s children and all who come after you as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.”
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It was in this spirit that the Antiquities Act was signed on June 8 1906. An effort to set aside and protect “historic landmarks… and other objects of historic or social interests,” the act aimed to stop the destruction of sites that were important to the nation in connecting us to our past and the inherent value natural beauty holds.
Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act out of his long-held sentiment that our nation’s natural resources should exist alongside our growing economy. He recognized the necessity of balancing economic growth with the preservation of our nation’s resources. He sought a system that might coexist and even benefit from what the natural world offered.
The legacy of this attitude is apparent in the $887 billion our outdoor recreation economy generates each year. “Gateway communities,” or communities within 60 miles of national parks, received around $15.7 billion in 2014 due to park visitors. Overall, the national parks return over $10 for every $1 of taxpayer money.
Roosevelt’s speech at the Grand Canyon in 1903 is as relevant now as it was then, as we face a new threat to his legacy and the legacy of our nation. A review by the Department of Interior of 27 national monuments created by the Antiquities Act in the last 20 years is underway. The results could see some of our nation’s public lands taken off the protected list or sold off.
The loss of any of our national monuments would be a great affront not only to our legacy of land protection, but also to the great economic benefit these monuments hold. The value of these lands and historic sites is evident to any onlooker, visitor or participant in the economy we have managed to create around them.
The author is communications director for Conservation Voters of South Carolina, a statewide, bipartisan non-profit that seeks to protect our land, air, and water.