WASATCH ENVIRONMENTAL UPDATE; “The Antiquities Act of 1906”

Wasatch Environmental Update for June 3, 2018

By John Worlock

“The Antiquities Act of 1906”


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One of our favorite pieces of legislation, the Antiquities Act of 1906, is currently under siege.  Our president is attempting to rescind the proclamations of earlier presidents under that act, and we have bills in congress not only promising to ratify those rescissions but also to amend the Antiquities Act so as to make it more or less useless.

Ours is an era in which federal authorities are trying to reduce their own government’s authority over public property, especially in the western states.  So it has been a pleasure to go back in history to the time of the creation of the Antiquities Act.  We read of a atmosphere of what was called Progressivism throughout the country.  It was a time when the federal government was beginning to realize its responsibilities for the governance of the vast acreages to which they fell heir, as the country had expanded westward faster than its people.

In that time a specific focus on American Indian ruins and ancient artifacts became important, and archaeologists began to take note of the irresponsible activities of amateurs as well as professional looters who had toward the end of the nineteenth century begun to troll the vast treasury of artifacts and knowledge in the abandoned cliff- and cave-dwellings in the desert southwest.

Into this milieu stepped  Edgar Lee Hewett, an educator working in New Mexico.  Hewitt, though untrained in archaeology, became fascinated by a pair of ruins near Santa Fe, and sought legislation to protect them.  He cultivated friends and contacts in Washington, and while he hoped to protect his ruins as national parks, his experience in Washington suggested another pathway.  Cooperating with the influential head of the House Committee on Public Lands and with officials in the Department of the Interior, he crafted a bill that sidestepped the jealousies that had hampered earlier attempts at passing an act protecting antiquities.  His bill wisely did not itself identify any lands to be protected, leaving that decision to future presidents.  But he succeeded in getting congress to assert the government’s responsibility to protect the nation’s assets.

The bill sailed through Congress.

Note this date, and celebrate the anniversary..Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law on June 8, 1906.

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