Clinton learns the art of audacity

  • Stevens Arch in Escalante Canyon

    Jack McLellan
 

Editor's note: On Sept. 18, just before President Clinton announced the creation of the nation's newest monument, writer and University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson talked about the historical precedents for protecting land through presidential action.

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - The grandest, most electrifying moments in American conservation history have always been reserved for the setting aside of large blocks of pristine land for protection.

Yellowstone. Yosemite. Glacier. Olympic. Teton. Rocky Mountain. The Grand Canyon.

Our presidents have played a central role in protecting large land areas. During the 19th century, the pressures on wild land had not yet built up and the calls for protection were few. Then the 20th century dawned and gave us Theodore Roosevelt, the most courageous, the most audacious, the most outrageous - and therefore the greatest - conservation president.

Roosevelt ignited the long, proud tradition of presidential activism for the land.

Take, for example, 1903 and 5-acre Pelican Island off the coast of Florida. The island may have been small, but the history T.R. wrote was large and spirited. Roosevelt wanted to make Pelican Island, all federal land, what he called a national wildlife refuge. He inquired of the Justice Department as to his power to do this.

A few days later, a government lawyer, sallow, squinty-eyed, pursed-lipped - a classic lawyer - came to the White House. He solemnly intoned, "I cannot find a law that will allow you to do this, Mr. President."

"But," replied T.R., now rising to his full height, "is there a law that will prevent it?" The lawyer, now frowning, replied that no, there was not. T.R. responded, "Very well, I so declare it."

The Antiquities Act of 1906 has been the single most important vehicle for presidential conservation action. It gives broad power to the president, and the great conservation presidents, T.R., F.D.R., and Carter, have used it extensively and courageously to designate national monuments to protect, as the Act says, "objects of historic or scientific interest." Carter's designation of 56 million acres as monuments in Alaska has been called the greatest single action in conservation history.

The objection to Carter's action was that the Antiquities Act limits monuments to the "smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected."

At first blush, Carter might seem to have been reaching a bit. After all, the Antiquities Act was proposed by the archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett, who seemed to have had in mind specific digs - and a maximum of 640 acres. Carter's 17 monuments averaged more than 3 million acres.

By the time Carter acted for Alaska, a long-shadowed precedent had already been set. In 1908 T.R. set aside, as the "smallest area compatible," quite a large canyon in northern Arizona and the Supreme Court had upheld it. Today, the courts allow presidents broad leeway with the Antiquities Act.

This Colorado Plateau has the greatest concentration of national parks and monuments in the world. Some of the following places are now parks but they all began as national monuments. We owe their existence to the Antiquities Act, brought to vivid life by presidential courage and foresight.

Listen to the beauty and wonder and magic in these words: Canyon de Chelly. Wupatki. Petrified Forest. Cedar Breaks. Navajo. Colorado. Zion. Arches. Natural Bridges. Rainbow Bridge. Hovenweep. Capitol Reef. Bryce Canyon. Chaco Canyon. The Grand Canyon.

Now we will receive the lasting gift of another national monument. At 1.7 million acres, half again the size of Grand Canyon National Park, it is one of the largest national monuments ever created in the lower 48 states. It features twisty, redrock canyons and long, high plateaus; and arches and natural bridges; and fine sites where the Old People, the Anasazi, lived and loved. It encompasses part of the Grand Staircase.

At its center is a high, remote, bell-shaped plateau called Kaiparowits, the last place to be mapped, the farthest-away place, literally the most remote place in the continental United States. It would seem an impossible candidate for national monument status, holding, as it does, a high-BTU, low-sulphur coal deposit that is as good as any on Earth.

How could this country have the will to leave such a place be, to stay our hand, to pass on the coal? But, through presidential courage and wisdom and spirit, we will soon be able to say these words: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

We are so blessed to be in this place, this exact place at this moment. For history's eagles fly high today, sailing and rolling and turning in the currents above us, lending their resolve and strength and approval to the brave and true act about to be made.

And we know they also ride the thermals rising up off the Circle Cliffs, the Straight Cliffs, the Cockscomb, and the Grand Staircase. Looking out, taking the long view, the eagles of history see the land, always the land, a rough and rocky but magnificent and sacred land, finally, at last, safe today.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.