Where the Wild Things Were: The History of American Land Preservation


This is Bears Ears National Monument (Smith).

As Americans hoping for a new life spread across the western frontier, they explored its unique and beautiful landscapes and picked out the best parts of it for themselves.  They have historically exploited American soil for resources, like the California Gold Rush of 1848. By the late 1800’s there was little to no federally protected land in the United States.  However, as the land preservation movement gradually gained traction through the early 1900’s under progressive presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, the first national parks and monuments were established, protecting such land from exploitation and preserving the beauty for enjoyment of the public.  Despite the efforts of the land preservation movement, today, less than ten percent of the land in the United States of America is federally protected as a National Park, Monument, Reserve, or others, which makes up a total of only 850,000 square miles of land(“United States of America, North America.”).  This value is nowhere near the total amount of land in the USA which is left unoccupied, at 47 percent, leaving unprotected land in all 50 states.(“US Census Bureau 2010 Census.”) Additionally, Americans today are still faced with the issue of who has the power to decide what land is worth protecting.

My Interest

I am personally interested in this topic because it is an environmental issue.  Prior to this, both my eighth grade research paper and ninth grade I-search paper (a 10+ page research paper requiring multiple interviews with experts in field) were focused on environmental topics, such as climate change.  I chose to focus on this specific topic mainly because it draws many parallels from a previous topic I researched, climate change denial, where certain interest groups can have unreasonable influences on public policy and legislation.

Recently, the topic piqued my interest when I heard it mentioned several times in recent news.  Specifically, when President Donald Trump has independently shrunk the size of two national monuments in Utah, it sparked some backlash by numerous Native American groups and environmentalist groups. He cited the Antiquities Act, an act established in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt that allowed presidents to alter National Monuments based on their archaeological significance (Turkewitz).

What is American Land Preservation?

American Land Preservation is the safekeeping of public land under the federal government. This is done by establishing specific areas, such as national parks and monuments, where little to no commercial establishments are allowed, usually for the uniqueness and beauty of different parts of the United States. However, since it is federal land that is being protected, it all boils down to a government decision on what land should be preserved and why, which is where problems begin to arise.  Although ideally politicians keep public interest in mind when protecting land, many politicians may draw from their private interests, which can result in tensions within the government and with the public.

Historical Significance

This is an image of President Theodore Roosevelt with environmentalist John Muir after Roosevelt’s famous 1903 campaign in Yosemite (“Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir.”).

The issue of American Land Preservation has historically been characterized as the fight to create and preserve lands.  Although the National Park Service was not established until August 25, 1916 by the Organic Act establishing NPS under Woodrow Wilson, there were many ongoing advancements in land preservation (“History”).  The first National Park, Yellowstone, was created on March 1, 1872 under the Yellowstone Act passed by President Ulysses S. Grant, and it was managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior (“History”).

Land preservation expands under president Theodore Roosevelt, also known as the “conservationist president”, who led the country from 1901-1909.  He was a major environmentalist, as he worked to preserve the most land of any president of his time; specifically, he established five National Parks, 18 National Monuments, 51 Federal Bird Reservations, four National Game Preserves, and set aside 230 million acres of public land in total (“The Conservation Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt”).  In a famous campaign in 1903, Teddy Roosevelt camped and hiked with environmentalist John Muir at Yosemite National Park, inspiring him to add the areas he explored, Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, to Yosemite National Park (“The Conservation Legacy…”). In 1906, he created the first piece of legal protection for natural resources and Native American culture in the United States, the Antiquities Act, in which presidents can create and alter national monuments based off of archaeological and natural significance (“History”).  Roosevelt’s preservation efforts were extraordinary not only with the physical achievements, but also the precedents he set for future presidents to follow when dealing with land preservation.

Within the span of the century following Roosevelt to today, there have been several influential presidents for land preservation, starting from president Woodrow Wilson, who passed the 1916 Organic Act establishing the National Park Service, to president Barack Obama, president from 2008-2016, who has set aside the most public of any president today, 265 million acres of land (“8 Presidents Who Shaped America’s Public Lands”).  There were many presidents that have supported land preservation, but there are a few that I would specifically highlight. In 1977, Jimmy Carter became the 39th president of the United States. Under his presidency, the National Parks and Recreation Act was signed in 1978. This act increased the power of the National Parks Service by alotting them more money, as well as increasing their land acquisition abilities. It also added 8 rivers to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System (Carter). In addition to this act, Carter also passed the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which provided about 43 million acres of land for national parks in Alaska (“8 Presidents Who…”). In total, Jimmy Carter set aside over 100 million acres of land, established 10 national parks and preserves, two national monuments, nine wildlife refuges, two national conservation areas, and 25 wild and scenic rivers, preventing all of them from being developed. Another president who has contributed greatly to land preservation was Barack Obama. In addition to setting aside the most land of any president towards land preservation, he spent a lot of his presidency expanding the Environmental Protection Agency, a government agency dedicated to protecting the environment and human health, and trying to mitigate the impacts of climate change. He also enlarged the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to largest marine monument in world and established numerous national monuments (“8 Presidents Who…”).

Today’s Issue

This is a shortened version of President Donald Trump’s address to the public explaining why he is shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments (“Trump Scales Back Utah National Monuments.”).

Today has dawned a new era of land preservation under the presidency of Donald Trump, where the goal of land preservation has shifted from creation of protected lands to the continuous preservation of lands.  However, in public eye, this time the government is either abusing previously established rights granted by laws such as the Antiquities Act to reduce the size of National Monuments or they are creating many more job opportunities by opening up protected land for public use. 

Citing the Antiquities Act, last December, President Donald Trump cut down the sizes of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by at least 50% each (Turkewitz).  This action was a serious issue because the land there not only home to protected endangered animal species but was also part of a Native American reserve. This also brings up another question of how much power the president has via the Antiquities Act. On March 2, this action resurfaced in the news with new information on the intent of president Donald Trump, revealing his private interests. When assessing all of the current national monuments, his administration discovered that Bears Ears National Monument was rich in natural resources, which was a key factor in his decision to shrink the monument (Friedman and Lipton). Specifically, in March 2017,staff from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s office pushed for redrawing the boundaries for Bears Ears, emphasizing that the state, as a result, would benefit heavily from gas and oil leases based off their proposed redrawing.  When President Trump shrank the monument by 85 percent in December, from 1.35 million acres to just over 200,000 acres, the new boundaries were nearly identical with the map proposed by Hatch’s office (Turrentine). They also discovered that when assessing Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Trump’s interior department team noted that “The Kaiparowits Plateau, located within the monument, contains one of the largest coal deposits in the United States”, and coincidentally large parts of that area are no longer a part of the monument (Friedman and Lipton). In addition to being a coal hot spot, the Kaiparowits Plateau home to many paleontologic discoveries.  Since it was designated as part of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1994, over 20 new dinosaur species have been unearthed there (Tanner). The Antiquities Act allows public lands to be designated as National Monuments based off of historic or scientific significance, and now President Trump has left a relevant site falling under both of those categories unprotected due to his actions. Throughout the history of this topic, this is the first serious threat, or the first question on how much power is given to the federal government on the issue of land preservation.


How this issue is resolved will set further precedents on the president’s rights via the Antiquities Act, or possibly completely change the act itself.  A short-term solution to this issue is to revert all current changes with respect to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, as this choice has sparked a lot of public outcry.  However, to accomplish this there must be proof that the act was either unconstitutional or did not follow the act that it cites, the Antiquities Act.  Also, the Antiquities Act states that president must consider the archaeological significance of the area, not possible economic and commercial interests. However, from an economical standpoint, many people still support the act of cutting the sizes of these monuments as it will create more jobs in mining and several other fields, befitting the state of Utah and its citizens.  

A long-term solution to avoid this issue in the future is to amend the Antiquities Act so that more people, such as the National Park Service Advisory Board, will have a say in the process of altering National Monuments.  The NPS Advisory Board is made up of qualified volunteers who oversee and recommend changes to various National Parks, and would be able to transfer their expertise to do the same for National Monuments, such as Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears.

Call to Action

If you want to further your engagement in this issue, a great starting point is to follow the current events surrounding the issue.  Specifically, there are many different groups currently suing President Donald Trump, including five Native American Tribes living in that area (the Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute) and various environmentalist groups (The Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Council, and The Wilderness Society).  Also, the Trump Administration and Secretary Zinke had also reviewed and considered shrinking several other National Monuments across several other states, like Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii and the Organ Mountains in New Mexico.  If you would like to be directly involved, you could research what National Monuments are in your state and write to local or state lawmakers to help protect the monuments by publicizing the issue of it.  Although the decision to cut down National Monuments are technically up to the president himself via the Antiquities Act, as long as there is enough opposition from locals of the area the call may be influenced, or even overturned.


Now that I have presented my project to you, this padlet is a space for anyone to comment, reflect, pose questions, and upload pictures.
Here are some questions to spark discussion: What solution would you propose to this, or do you agree with my ideas?  Have you heard any recent updates on the issue?

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Works Cited

“8 Presidents Who Shaped America’s Public Lands.” U.S. Department of the Interior, 12 Feb. 2016, Accessed 6 Mar. 2018.

“History.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.

“The Conservation Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt.” U.S. Department of the Interior, 27 Oct. 2016, Accessed 6 Mar. 2018.

“Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir.” Library of Congress, Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California, 1903,

“Trump Scales Back Utah National Monuments.”, 7 Dec. 2017,

“United States of America, North America.” Protected Planet, ProtectedPlanet,

“US Census Bureau 2010 Census.”, U.S. Census Bureau, 21 Oct. 2009,

Lipton, Eric, and Lisa Friedman. “Oil Was Central in Decision to Shrink Bears Ears Monument, Emails Show.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 2 Mar. 2018, Accessed 6 Mar. 2018.

Smith, S.E. “Trump Guts Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.”Care2 Causes, 6 Dec. 2017,

Tanner, Courtney. “Five American Indian Tribes, Furious over Trump Shrinking Bears Ears on His Trip to Utah, Sue the President.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 4 Dec. 2017,

Turkewitz, Julie. “Trump Slashes Size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Monuments.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 4 Dec. 2017, Accessed 22 Jan. 2018.

Turrentine, Jeff. “The Sordid Backstory Behind the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Decisions.” NRDC, National Resources Defense Council, 9 Mar. 2018,

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