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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Safeguarding Our Nation's Treasures

One hundred years ago, the Antiquities Act of 1906 set basic standards for safeguarding and maintaining our country's historic and natural resources. Its goal was to protect important sites on public lands for their historic or scientific significance, as well as their memorial and cultural values. The Antiquities Act enabled the president to move quickly, without Congressional approval, to provide special protection for important archeological, historical and scientific places located on federal lands by designating them as national monuments.

The Antiquities Act also established professional and scientific standards for investigating archeological resources on public lands. Permits required under the Antiquities Act stipulate that qualified experts use up-to-date methods and technology to excavate archeological resources. Applicants for permits must also agree to store the collected artifacts in authorized museums open to the public.

In addition to setting basic standards and regulations to protect and care for historic and natural resources, the Antiquities Act set ground work for additional programs and legislation. For example, the necessity to manage the growing number of national monuments contributed to establishment of the National Park Service in 1916.

Limitations of the Antiquities Act led to additional legislation. The Historic Sites Act of 1935 acknowledged governmental responsibility to preserve and protect nationally significant historic properties, whether or not located on federal land, "for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States." Later, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 extended protection to historic properties important to the histories of states and communities as well as those significant to the nation as a whole. The Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 put in place more stringent protection for archeological sites and objects on federal lands.

The first site to be declared a National Monument and the first scientific area protected under the Antiquities Act of 1906 was Devil's Tower, a 600-foot high geological formation in Crook County, Wyoming. Jutting nearly 1300 feet above the nearby Belle Fourche River, Devil's Tower, a formation of igneous rock (rock formed by solidification from a molten state) some 40 million years old, is visible for miles on clear days. Devil's Tower served as a landmark for the first Americans and the settlers who followed them.

The second national monument and first historical area protected by the Antiquities Act was El Morro, "Inscription Rock," of New Mexico. Petroglyphs, images etched by early American Indians, along with more than 2,000 signatures and messages, some dating to the 16th century, are reminders of the many visitors who paused at the nearby watering hole.

Arizona's Montezuma Castle was the first site of ancient cliff dwellings protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906, the year it was enacted. Tonto National Monument, site of the Salado cliff dwellings high above Arizona's Tonto Basin, was designated a national monument in 1907. Tonto National Monument was the ninth national monument site designated and fifth historically significant area protected.

Although the Antiquities Act stipulates that the size of places designated national monuments be restricted to the "smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected," the size of national monuments varies greatly, thanks to the precedent set by President Theodore Roosevelt's broad interpretation of the law. At ten acres, Colorado's Yucca House is the smallest national monument site; Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias (later made a national park and national preserve) at 13,176,399 acres is the largest.

The content of sites protected by the Antiquities Act also varies widely. For example, Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the borders of Utah and Colorado, protects a deposit of dinosaur and other giant reptile remains of the Jurassic period. The Statue of Liberty, symbol of liberty and gift from France, was proclaimed a national monument to mark America as the land of freedom and opportunity. The Virgin Island Coral Reef's 12,708 acres of submerged lands were set aside to provide greater protection for the coral reef and its resources.

The Antiquities Act affirms the United States Government's commitment to preserve, protect and interpret archeological resources not for their commercial worth, but for their value to all of the public. It serves as an effective means for presidents to protect public lands that face immediate threats. The Antiquities Act aroused and confirmed public interest in America's cultural treasures and vast natural resources. The ripple effect of the Antiquities Act of 1906 contributed to the creation of the National Park Service, educational programs for visitors and the founding of many public agencies dedicated not only to archeological preservation, but for interpretation essential to understand America's long history.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What types of sites can be protected under the Antiquities Act of 1906? Give examples of each.

2. Why did the Antiquities Act require people to obtain a permit to conduct archeological investigations and excavations? Do you think requiring a permit is a good idea? Why or why not?

3. What do you think would have happened to the Salado cliff dwellings without the protection of the Antiquities Act of 1906? Refer back to Reading 2, if necessary.

4. What additional preservation and conservation programs and laws followed the Antiquities Act of 1906?

Reading 3 was compiled from Ronald F. Lee, "The Antiquities Act of 1906," 1970; Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, "Introduction to the Antiquities Act of 1906," electronic edition, January 2001; Kathleen D. Browning, "Implementing the Antiquities Act: A Survey of Archeological Permits 1906-1935," 2003; Francis P. McManamon, "The Antiquities Act-Setting Basic Preservation Policies," CRM, No. 7, 1996; National Park Service, "El Morro National Monument, New Mexico,"; Lary M. Dilsaver, editor, "America's National Park System: The Critical Documents,"; and Mark Squillace, "The Monumental Legacy of the Antiquities Act of 1906," Georgia Law Review, Volume 37, Number 2, Winter 2003.

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