When presidential historians periodically take stock of “the greatest” American presidents Herbert Hoover never fares very well. His single term – 1929 to 1933 – was considered at the time and ever since as a prime example of a “failed presidency.”
The great stock market crash helped usher in the Great Depression and historically high unemployment on Hoover’s watch. His response to the resulting economic crisis has generally been considered inadequate, even callous, and Franklin Roosevelt crushed Hoover’s re-election hopes in an historic landslide in 1932. Hoover continues to rank among the most unlucky and unloved American presidents. History is a cruel mistress.
Yet, earlier this week I basked in the desert sunshine at a Herbert Hoover legacy – a truly monumental achievement – that the long-ago president created just days before he left the White House in disgrace. In the rocky, mountainous desert just west of downtown Tucson there exists what may be one of the failed president’s greatest, most visionary accomplishments. Thanks to the 31st president it’s our monument, too.
On March 1, 1933, Hoover, still smarting from his landslide loss to FDR, signed a presidential proclamation declaring thousands of acres of Arizona desert as Saguaro National Monument. The monument Hoover created with a stroke of his pen – he used his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act – eventually became a national park in 1994 and played host to nearly 680,000 visitors in 2013. It is estimated that the park, the largest tourist attraction in southern Arizona, contributes $75 million annually to the local economy. Hoover’s monument protects the towering saguaro cactus, a magnificent creation that is found only in the desert of southern Arizona and across the border in Mexico. When you hike this area you’re struck by both the harshness of the desert environment and its delicate nature. It is the kind of place where the heavy hand of man could easily destroy the majesty that Mother Nature has created. We have a failed president to thank for saving it so that my hiking companions and I could enjoy it 75 years after Hoover put his signature on a presidential proclamation.
Fast forward to this week when House Republicans again voted to gut the 1906 Antiquities Act that has been used by fifteen American presidents to, in effect, create the greatest system of national parks, monuments and wildlife reserves on the planet. What modern conservatives fail to acknowledge is that our great national park and monument legacy would simply not exist as it does without every president since the Act was created having used it to preserve and protect the nation’s special places.
Teddy Roosevelt, a president most modern Republicans embrace only gingerly, clutched the Act to his burly chest and saved the Grand Canyon from commercial exploitation. He preserved Jewel Cave in South Dakota and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, among a raft of other actions. Roosevelt knew he couldn’t get a reluctant Republican Congress to act, so he acted in the national interest and thank God he did.
William Howard Taft saved the Big Hole in Montana. Warren Harding used his authority under the Antiquities Act to preserve Bryce Canyon in Utah. Calvin Coolidge, not a man to fawn over executive power, used his to protect Craters of the Moon in Idaho and the marvelous Chiricahua’s in Arizona. FDR used the Act to protect Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Joshua Tree in California. Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and both the Bush’s used the Antiquities Act. Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah and protected the Minidoka Japanese-American internment site in Idaho. LBJ used the act. Barack Obama has, too.
Read the list of national monuments and special places protected by presidential action and you’ll read a list of America’s heritage, a list of the places all of us would love to visit and do by the millions every year.
Utah Republican Rob Bishop sponsored the bill in Congress this week and complained, as Politico reported, “that Obama has designated a half-dozen monuments in the past year without input from Congress, including a significant expansion of a national monument along the Pacific Ocean in California this month. The March 11 action permanently protects about 1,665 acres of federal lands near Point Arena, 130 miles north of San Francisco.”
Obama acted, of course, because Congress no longer – and rarely has in our history – acted to create national parks and monuments. Many now hope, and I count myself in that number, that Obama will use his authority under the 1906 Act to permanently protect the Boulder-White Clouds area in central Idaho. If the president does act it will be because Congress, despite a vast amount of input from Idahoans and Americans in other states, has not acted for a generation to formally protect this area. The late Sen. Jim McClure and then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, a Republican and a Democrat, advocated action to protect the Boulder-White Clouds in the 1980’s and Republican Rep. Mike Simpson has pushed protection of the area for a decade and still Congress has not moved.
Teddy Roosevelt realized when he acted to protect the Grand Canyon that local pressure from politically influential economic interests would never permit Congressional action, so Roosevelt acted for the public interest. Once the canyon was protected, Congress got serious about it’s responsibility. Jimmy Carter famously used the Antiquities Act at the behest of his Interior Secretary – Idaho’s Andrus – to create his and the nation’s great Alaska lands legacy. The Alaska Congressional delegation only came to the table when presidential action finally forced serious action. Carter’s conservation legacy will one day be seen to rival Teddy Roosevelt’s and all thanks to the Antiquities Act.
The House vote this week is mostly for show, another poke in the eye of Obama, and is unlikely to spur action by the Senate. For more than 100 years the Antiquities Act has allowed American presidents of both parties to protect the national crown jewels. In an ideal world, Congress would regularly and seriously consider conservation measures like protection for Idaho’s Boulder-White Clouds, but in fact it rarely even holds hearings on such things.
As the Salt Lake Tribune in Rep. Bishop’s home state editorialized this week: “Turning a piece of federally owned land — land held in trust for all the people of the United States, present and future — into a national monument is an innately forward-thinking act. But it is one that could, should sentiments and circumstances change, be reversed.
“It’s at least possible that a majority of the American people, speaking through their elected representatives in Congress, could decide that the temporary benefit of burning another 100 million tons of coal or another 100 million barrels of oil outweighs the benefit of preserving beautiful, unique or environmentally fragile lands. If that happens, they can move to sell the parks, cancel presidential declarations of national monuments and rub their hands together over all the lovely money that their friends will make.”
The next time you visit a national park or monument remember Teddy Roosevelt’s words in 1908 when he protected the awesome canyon of the Colorado River. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve upon it; not a bit,” TR said. “What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you.” Exactly.
There is nothing wrong with the Antiquities Act that a more conservation-minded, forward-looking Congress couldn’t fix.