It is difficult to imagine the American climbing scene minus National Monuments. Teddy Roosevelt established Devils Tower in 1906, and since then, several iconic climbing areas such as Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Pinnacles, Joshua Tree, and Gates of the Arctic have been protected as presidential National Monuments. (Some of these areas have since been re-designated as National Parks by Congress.) President Barack Obama has created or expanded 22 National Monuments during his term—the most of any president, with over 2 million acres of public land protected.
However, presidential National Monuments can be controversial and somewhat tricky for recreational access. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the President of the United States the executive authority to proclaim a National Monument, a tool that is often used when Congressional gridlock prevents federal lands from being protected and conserved. In the late 1800s, early conservationists recognized that America’s historic and cultural treasures were being stolen by looters and needed to be protected. The Antiquities Act was easily passed by Congress and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 in order to protect "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" as National Monuments.
Over the past century, many legislators (both state and federal) have criticized a President who chooses to proclaim a National Monument, on the basis that the designation may lack local support, prohibit mining and grazing, and weaken local economies. Despite criticisms, the Antiquities Act has been used by 16 presidents (both Democrat and Republican) to proclaim nearly 150 National Monuments, some of which have since changed designation or been abolished.
The Access Fund believes that climbing, and other forms of low-impact recreation, are appropriate ways for the public to experience National Monuments. But, it is important for climbers to understand what this designation means for climbing access. As President Obama wraps up his second term, we have seen, and expect to see more, new National Monument designations that could impact climbing. While Access Fund often supports the conservation goals of National Monument designations, we must acknowledge that National Monuments are created to protect antiquities, not climbing. In general, we prefer that Congress protect these areas through legislation, instead of the President using the Antiquities Act. Legislation is not bound by the confines of the Antiquities Act and can more easily protect recreation values. And since a law is passed after a majority of legislators agree, there is typically more support for legislated protection than for an executive order.
However, the Antiquities Act is an important conservation tool that we support. National Monument designations can be executed in a way that protect both antiquities and climbing, and the Access Fund policy team is working hard to ensure that the President understands the locations and values of climbing resources before making decisions. We have a much better chance of protecting climbing access if these recreational opportunities are acknowledged in the President’s National Monument proclamations. Having this acknowledgment is essential to ensuring that land management agencies develop plans that appropriately protect climbing opportunities, and it paves the way for our seat at the table when these plans are being developed.