The Shape of Public-Lands Law and Trump's National Monument Proclamations

37 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2018 Last revised: 1 Oct 2018

Date Written: September 30, 2018


President Trump issued a proclamation in December 2017 purporting to remove two million acres in southern Utah from national monument status, radically shrinking the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and splitting the Bears Ears National Monument into two residual protected areas. Whether the President has the power to revise or revoke existing monuments under the Antiquities Act, which creates the national monument system, is a new question of law for a 112-year-old statute that has been used by Presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama to protect roughly fifteen million acres of federal land and hundreds of millions of marine acres. If President Trump’s shrinkages stand, they will be the largest removal of public lands from protected status in U.S. history, and will put the remaining national monuments on the chopping block.

This article advances a novel theory showing that the President lacks the power to revise or revoke monuments. The Antiquities Act gives a power only to protect public lands, not to remove them from protection. Arguments developed so far in litigation and scholarship fail to recognize a general feature of public-lands law: It consistently denies the President the power unilaterally to remove lands from statutorily protected categories once they are placed within those categories. The Antiquities Act should be read to be consistent with this field-wide pattern.

The article explicates the reasons for this pattern. Generally speaking, public-lands law has been very little theorized; but it needs a theory now. Public-lands law is a field defined by structured normative pluralism. It integrates a range of deeply conflicting public-lands purposes, from mining and drilling to wilderness preservation, across a range of statutes and agencies and acreage totaling nearly a third of the land area of the United States. The asymmetric premise against any Presidential power remove lands from protection is rooted in this structure, specifically the President’s obligation to preserve for Congress the option of protecting lands, and the dangers of hasty or corrupt Presidential action. The article traces these rationales across the history of statutory, executive, and judicial articulations of public-lands law and shows that they apply to the present Antiquities Act dispute.

The article also highlights the political and cultural dimension of the dispute: a series of three-way conflicts among “public-lands populists” who seek increased use of and access to public lands (whose agenda the Trump Administration has incorporated into its economic and ethno-national populism), recreationists and environmentalists, and indigenous communities in the Bears Ears region. Conflicts among these groups amount to fights over collective identity--the nature of the “public” that public lands should serve. This dimension of the conflict does not fall outside the doctrinal analysis of the Antiquities Act. Rather, with a clear theoretical view of public-lands law, it is possible to see that these agendas are already integral to the field itself. They are central threads of its pluralism, and their competing claims fit within its structure. An account of the larger field of cultural conflict both enriches the theory of public-lands law and helps to show how the field should resolve the present fight.

Keywords: public lands, national monuments, Antiquities Act, president, executive power

Suggested Citation

Britton-Purdy, Jedediah S., The Shape of Public-Lands Law and Trump's National Monument Proclamations (September 30, 2018). Ecology Law Quarterly, Forthcoming, Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series 2018-33, Available at SSRN: or

Jedediah S. Britton-Purdy (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States

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