Preserving American Landscapes

America’s public land is under threat. What can architects do to protect our national resources?

Editorial National News Preservation
America's public land is under threat. What can architects do to protect our national resources? Pictured here: Citadel ruins at Bear Ears National Monument, one of the sites reviewed by the U.S. Department of the Interior this summer as the agency prepares a potential revision to the laws that guide public land conservation. (Flickr/IIP Photo Archive)
America's public land is under threat. What can architects do to protect our national resources? Pictured here: Citadel ruins at Bear Ears National Monument, one of the sites reviewed by the U.S. Department of the Interior this summer as the agency prepares a potential revision to the laws that guide public land conservation. (Flickr/IIP Photo Archive)

Although debating the ideal size, role, and scope of the federal government is one of America’s great national pastimes, there has typically been surprisingly broad and consistent support for the Antiquities Act of 1906, a landmark conservation law passed by Congress and enacted by President Theodore Roosevelt 111 years ago.

The law, generally speaking, grants the United States government—particularly, the President—broad authority in designating federally owned lands as national monuments. The effort is made as part of a federally recognized network of protections, which includes the National Park Service, in order to retain and perpetuate public use of wild, scenic, and culturally significant landscapes. The Antiquities Act is responsible for securing some of the most sublime and irreplaceable landscapes the country has to offer, such as the Grand Canyon, Giant Sequoia National Monument, Devils Tower, and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, for current and future generations. The act, more or less, protects America’s—and Americans’—most literal and shared heritage: land.

But like so many other cultural and political norms and traditions under the new presidential administration, the Antiquities Act is facing an existential threat.

This April, President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior not only to review 27 specific national monuments created under the last three presidential administrations but also to review the law itself, calling the Antiquities Act a “massive federal land grab.” President Ronald Reagan has been the only president not to name any new national monuments; President Trump is threatening to be the first to rescind existing monuments.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent the summer observing the new monuments—including Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah, which was expanded under President Obama and has drawn ire from local landowners and politicians. Zinke completed his review in late August but is keeping the findings close to his chest, revealing that “some changes” were in store, without making the report fully public (at press time). It is expected, however, that Bears Ears Monument will shrink in size—current estimates predict it will be reduced from 1.35 million acres to just 160,000—but that, according to Zinke, the government would “maintain federal ownership of all federal land and protect the land under federal environmental regulations.” The move is fiercely opposed by Native American communities, including the Navajo Nation and Hopi and Zuni reservations, which surround the monument.

For now, we wait to see the full extent of Zinke’s report. And while we do not know where the administration’s review of the Antiquities Act itself will head, the effort—when combined with unsuccessful motions to backtrack on Obama-era methane-emissions regulations, successful measures allowing for increased mining runoff into streams, and incentivizing programs for coal projects on federal lands—it is clear the president intends to tarnish the nation’s lands in concert with violating its institutions and norms.

In the same way that architects have led the way in saving architectural relics via support for historic preservation and the National Register of Historic Places—also administered by the Department of the Interior—we must become more vocal in our support for retaining and, in fact, expanding public access to public lands. The National Park System is currently languishing with a $12 billion backlog of repairs. Efforts like the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Hands-On Preservation Experience (HOPE) Crew, which connects young people to preservation-related trades through on-the-ground work, is a positive first step, but more work and support are needed.

As with historic preservation, national monuments exist to perpetuate and preserve our most meaningful and compelling spaces and can, moving forward, even work to highlight forgotten or marginalized histories and cultures. Natural landscapes, like cultural landscapes and historic structures and neighborhoods, are vital to the architectural profession and the country alike.

The federal government should keep its hands off these lands, and architects would do well to fight publicly for their protection. 

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