Wednesday, December 2, 2009

TR's Antiquities Act Abuse

Before we get back to the chronology, here is one story, about TR's creation of the first Grand Canyon National Monument , as told by Hal Rothman in his 1989 America's National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation (Univ. of Illinois, ch 4. Find the book on the website 
1903, TR visits the Canyon, and someone tells him that the railroad, the Santa Fe, having just recently brought its tracks almost to the rim, had decided to build a hotel back from the rim. TR says he is pleased at this restraint. A year later, El Tovar, on the rim, opened. Rothman notes there were no laws preventing such construction in a national forest. No surprise; as Rousseau pointed out, laws are necessary to protect those who would obey them even if they didn't exist from those who break them even when they do. It would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, leaving the rim in a natural condition, so visitors could see the Canyon in its primordial frame.

Rothman presents the Santa Fe's case:  with droves of tourists, a tasteful hotel in harmony with its surroundings filled a need. [And Fred Harvey's pockets?] I can only wonder if TR didn't feel a bit peeved. After all, in his iconic speech (see Dec 2 entry) he said: "I was delighted to learn of the wisdom of the Santa Fe Railroad in deciding not to build their hotel on the brink of the can(y)on." Rothman then suggests that five more years of this, and Roosevelt had to limit growth. However, he tells only the sleazy story of Ralph Cameron and the phony mining claims he filed so as to control the Bright Angel Trail [a story for another time]. Was the proclamation of the Game Preserve in 1906 to prohibit such claims? Was Cameron just a pain in the Santa Fe's side? Who was whose friend in this murk? Then Cameron really pushed buttons by trying to get legislation that would allow him to build some sort of sightseeing railway or trolley line or whatever along the rim. According to a 1909 Forest Service report, this set off a chain of influentials, ending in Pinchot telling Roosevelt, who used the Antiquities Act to add a layer of National Monument status on the National Forest. That status would forbid any development. (Horace McFarland, quoted in Lee, Antiquities Act, 91; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Report of the United States Forester for 1909 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1909), 18.) Very tidy.

Now, such narrative and analysis is the stuff of archival digging, the chain that shows just how A got to G. But I am disturbed by the narrowness of Rothman's account, and then by what he makes of this chain. Here is his extrapolation:

The real catalyst for Roosevelt's interpretation of the Antiquities Act was his broad application of the "object of scientific interest" clause. This ambiguous definition gave him vast latitude, and without precedents to establish limits, Roosevelt created his own version of the boundaries of the monument category, ostensibly preserved as examples of scientific principles in action. Devils Tower, the Petrified Forest, Muir Woods, the Grand Canyon, and others were proclaimed as "scientific" national monuments. Yet despite the obvious scientific merit of some of the monuments, scientific use did not figure in the reasons behind their establishment.
   Nowhere were these ambiguities as obvious as at the Grand Canyon. The president himself was awestruck by the sight of the gorge, and the AT&SF built a railroad and a monumental hotel on the rim of the canyon because nearly everyone who stood there felt the same way. Because he wanted to preserve the character of the Grand Canyon from the intrusion of the cable car, Roosevelt put limits on all growth there, not because it was "an object of unusual scientific interest, being the greatest eroded canyon within the United States." [ 26. United States Statutes At Large, L. 35 Stat. 2175 (1908).] The Grand Canyon certainly had scientific importance, but to Americans in 1908, its scenic and cultural attributes far surpassed its scientific value. Establishment created a proper way to present this vast natural affirmation of American culture to visitors. Scientists bent on research were not battling over the canyon; hotelkeepers and tour guides were.

First, I would argue that "scientific use" did figure in the reasons. The chain Rothman sets up is quite possibly accurate in detail, but it does not acknowledge all the other players and their motives. The stories of the Grand Canyon National Park are thick with motivations. The Cameron episode could have been a cover for nefarious scientists to protect their research playground from the depredations of legitimate, upstanding businessmen. Or perhaps those businessmen, those railroad barons, anxious to head off any more competition, may have seen a Monument of unusual scientific interest (where they already had a foot in the hotel door) as worthy of support. Would the Antiquities Act have been an invalid resort for them, because they were promoting science while securing a monopoly? To accept Rothman's 1-2-3 chain is to downgrade the richness of human political maneuvering. It is to be celebrated that several motives joined hands to justify a Monument and protect the Canyon, not tut-tutted over. If the only tool was the Antiquities Act, and if the Canyon's "scenic and cultural attributes" far surpassed its scientific value (in 1908 or anytime), so be it. The scientific value is still there, and high, and justificatory.

But. But that doesn't mean that the Grand Canyon is not a supremely worthy place to practice science. It certainly is. And the sciences practiced are more than the observation of what happens when the natural world gets smashed beyond recognition by human activities. TR could have argued--I would--that much of the scientific use of the Canyon depends on there being a minimum of anthropogenic change. Much of the scientific disputation -- scientists bent on research certainly do battle over the Canyon -- requires that the evidence remain undisturbed in place. The Antiquities Act arose out of concern over despoliation of archeological remains. Roadbuilding, riverside camping, hotels, hordes of hikers and riders, reservoir operations can also damage the geology and biology. Did TR (and Pinchot and McFarland et al.) have to think: "The Canyon's archeological deposits are going down the tubes!" --  and only that, for the Antiquities Act to be brought into play?

Chiding historical figures for over-stepping narrowly interpreted legal language is a mug's game. A worthier goal would be to search out for display the spectrum of motives of the various actors, an environment, in this case, that favored protection by utilizing, and even in novel ways, every tool at hand.

Of course, such actions are also encouraged when opponents try to sneak around the rules. If it were not for their obstructions, in flagrant misbehavior like that of Cameron (or civil misbehavior, like the Santa Fe's), expansive actions (creative government is not an oxymoron) like TR's wouldn't have been necessary. But this is a fundamental human question; are we courtly and decent, or are we rapacious and fiercely opportunistic? Roosevelt certainly saw his opponents as bending, breaking, smashing, and trampling on any laws, rules or codes of gentlemanly behavior for their selfish and greedy ends. And he believed an appropriate response was to exercise government powers by stretching out his arm so as to punch out the malefactors.

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