Posted by: David Offutt | January 7, 2009

The Antiquities Act Versus Bush’s Anti-Environmental Policies

In January 2004, President George W. Bush recommended a U.S. mission to land a man on Mars. That may have been the first time that Mr. Bush had actually planned ahead on anything. After all, if he continued implementing his catastrophic environmental policies, we would really need to know if we will be able to live in a Mars-like environment on earth. Moreover, if he succeeded in making earth completely uninhabitable, we needed to know if we would be able to move to Mars and live there.

Denuded ForestJune 8, 2006, was the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906. It is one of our most important conservation statutes and is used to preserve public lands – lands that belong to all Americans. The act allows the President to save lands that possess significant historical and/or scientific values by assigning them the status of “national monument.” Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to use the act, and every president since has added at least one national treasure for future generations to enjoy. Unexpectedly, Ronald Reagan designated two (Hagerman Fossil Beds in Idaho and El Malpais in New Mexico) and George H. W. Bush created one (Petroglyph in New Mexico). That was only three national monuments in a twelve-year period!

David Offutt at the African Burial Ground National Monument (July 2013): George W. Bush became the first Republican President since Gerald Ford to use the Antiquities Act of 1906.

David Offutt: The African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan (July 2013). George W. Bush prevented this site from being destroyed for development purposes by using the Antiquities Act of 1906.

However, Mr. Bush amazed everyone by actually using the Antiquities Act in February 2006 to set aside less than a half-acre of the African Burial Ground in the Lower Manhattan  section of New York City. The area was the burial place of some 20,000 slaves and free blacks in the 18th century. Later, on June 15, 2006, he surprised us again by designating the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, the largest marine preserve in the world (it was renamed  Papahanaumokuakea National Monument in 2007).

More typically, Mr. Bush sided with development rather than preservation. Shrewdly, the Bush-Cheney administration used a slight-of-hand tactic to fool the public: it fiendishly believed that if it made a proposal sound good, no one would notice that its plan did the exact opposite of what it claimed. Sadly, the Bush-Cheney co-presidency was aware that it didn’t have to deceive everyone; it had to fool only 50.1% of those who vote.

Their “Clear Skies Initiative” was an excellent example of one of the President and his Veep’s deliberately misnamed proposals. This proposal would allow power plants, refineries, and factories to repair and replace equipment without having to install new pollution controls. This would actually allow an increase of toxic emissions into the atmosphere. “Clear Skies” was intended to weaken the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977, which were enacted to ensure that pollution controls would be modernized as older plants made improvements. This administration looked out for its supporters’ profits, not for the health of the planet or its inhabitants.

The good news was that Earthjustice (representing six environmental and health organizations) teamed with over a dozen states, contested the “Clear Skies Initiative,” and won. In March 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously ruled against the Administration.

Even better news was that one of the judges was Janice Rogers Brown. Mr. Bush appointed her so that he would win cases like this. Virtually every environmental and consumer group in the country had opposed her nomination because of her long record of routinely siding with corporate interests. The only hope we have is that once judges like Ms. Brown receive lifetime appointments they will display an independence they have rarely shown before and look out for the interests of us all.  In that particular case, our hope was justified. Hopefully, we will see the same from Bush appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justice Alito. Don’t hold your breath.

Also, diabolically taking advantage of the rise of gasoline prices, which was routine under Bush-Cheney, Mr. Bush recommended relaxing emission regulations so as to increase production – pretending that would actually make a big difference! Don’t you love him? If one scheme didn’t work, he’d come at you with the same screwball idea from a different angle. He would do anything at the expense of the environment to make his contributors happy.

Bush and Vice very early jumped on an opportunity to use the drought and wildfires in the West to launch another misnomer. They called this one the “Healthy Forests Initiative.” Homes and other properties were being destroyed and something needed to be done to protect them. But, did this proposal do anything to remove brush or the young growth that presented a fire danger to nearby settlements? No. It provided for new roads to be built deep into forests to allow the cutting of fire-resistant old growth trees! Incredible! By the way, the 400,000 miles of forest roads we already have currently need $10 billion worth of back maintenance.

Two other schemes also appeared to be intended to help the President and VP Dick Cheney pay back their timber industry contributors. In May 2005, the administration announced the revocation of the “Roadless Rule” and instituted a state petition process! The idea was to pretend our national forests were state forests and turn them over to state governors. In March 2006, the Bush-Cheney bunch proposed selling off more than 300,000 acres of our national forests! The money was supposed to pay for rural schools in counties hurt by cutbacks in logging on federal lands. They seemed to plan to destroy selected forests around the country because they weren’t allowed to destroy certain other ones. Unbelievable!

Fortunately, thanks to many organizations like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, which contested these schemes in court, not one new road has been built into our national forests since the “Roadless Rule” was issued by the U.S. Forest Service.

You may have noticed something in common with all these: Clear Skies Initiative, Healthy Forests Initiative, ending the Roadless Rule, selling national forests, and relaxing emission regulations. All of them would contribute to the acceleration of global warming. Because of the plight of the endangered polar bears, Mr. Bush finally acknowledged the existence of climate change. Nevertheless, his actions made it clear that he truly didn’t care.

by David Offutt

This is an updated version of an essay that was published June 3, 2006, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.


  1. Yep, that “Healthy Forest Initiative” was always a joke.

    This is another one of those issues that politicians don’t have the guts to deal with honestly. The forests are unhealthy because the fire-resistant old growth has been logged and replaced with thick 2nd growth forests. Wildfires that used to clean out the underbrush and create natural firebreaks are instead suppressed by Smokey the Bear. As climate change makes the West dryer and warmer, the fire problem may become worse.

    Meanwhile, wealthy people keep building wooden houses and wooden vacation cabins in fire-prone areas. Then when a wildfire sweeps through and burns down their cabin, they blame the government for not doing enough to stop the fire ! ! !

    My house is built of fire resistant materials. If a wildfires passes through the area, as it surely will someday, I may experience some nuisance problems, but my house should survive.

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