America's National Monuments

The Politics of Preservation

Hal K. Rothman

With the stroke of a pen, Theodore Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Without his quick action, commercial developers, already coveting this national treasure, would have invaded the canyon's floor. Not until eleven years later did Congress make it a national park, an act that provided funds for development and preservation unavailable to national monuments.

According to Hal Rothman, the designation of national monument—decided at the discretion of the president—was the saving grace for many natural and archaeologically significant sites as debates on national park designations languished in Congress. But lacking sufficient financial backing, national monuments inevitably ended up taking a back seat to the national park system in the early twentieth century.

“It is high time that a historian analyzed the role of the Antiquities Act of 1906 as a tool for historic preservation. This story is replete with heroes and villains (or at least obstructionists). It is a judicious view of the debates over the fate of our public lands.”

—Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

“Rothman makes a persuasive case for giving the monuments their earned place in the history of preservation. He has a particular talent for choosing revealing case studies.”

—Patricia Nelson Limerick in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History

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Looking at the history of the national monuments, from the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906—allowing for presidential designation of monuments—to the present, Rothman traces the evolution of federal preservation. He shows how laws, policies, personalities, personal and bureaucratic rivalries, and a changing cultural climate affected preservation efforts. And he illustrates how the national park system has functioned and changed over the years as public officials have tried to implement federal policy at the grassroots level.

The Antiquities Act, he contends, has been undervalued and ignored by contemporary observers and historians. In fact, he demonstrates, it is the most important piece of preservation legislation ever enacted by the U.S. government. Without it, many significant sites would have been destroyed as a result of congressional inertia and indifference.

Rothman examines the evolution of this vital legislation, originally designed to preserve archaeological sites in the Southwest but later also used to maintain other significant prehistoric, historic, and natural features. He explains how the act became less significant as New Deal financing became available for the park system in the 1930s; how expansion and reorganization of the National Park Service brought more money and status to national monuments; and how, by the 1960s, national monuments had been integrated into the modern management system for park areas. Set in the context of the regulatory century, this book offers important new insights about how the American past has been preserved and packaged for the public.

Additional Titles in the Development of Western Resources Series