Recent administrations have viewed the Antiquities Act of 1906 differently than its original crafters. If alive today, many of those lawmakers might be distressed to see the unintended consequences of their broad-language legislation.

In the late 19th century, archaeological sites in the Southwest were being looted, with artifacts sold to private collections or museums in other countries. So Congress passed a measure declaring that people caught appropriating, excavating, injuring or destroying any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument on federal lands would be fined $500 or imprisoned up to 90 days.

The act gave the president power to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the U.S. to be national monuments,” limited “to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

Because all federal land contains “objects of historic or scientific interest,” presidents are given carte blanche monument-designating authority throughout the country. Criticism has come from those who claim the “smallest area” aspect is ignored. Of the 105 current national monuments proclaimed under the Antiquities Act, 46 are larger than 5,000 acres and 28 larger than 50,000 acres. Currently, about 70 million acres are under national monument designation.

The largest of these was created in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter designated 56 million acres in Alaska a monument even though most Alaskans opposed it. Congress subsequently passed a law saying the act couldn’t be used to designate large monuments in Alaska without Congress’s approval. Wyoming also has such an exemption.

Many in the Western U.S. thought President Bill Clinton also overstepped his powers in 1996 when he created the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument on 1.9 million acres in southern Utah. The Utah Association of Counties filed suit because, among other things, the president “did not limit the size of the monument to the ‘smallest area’ necessary to preserve the objects,” but the Utah District Court rejected the suit. In the end, Clinton designated more national monuments than any other president.

When introduced in 1906, one supporter assured Western legislators that the act’s purpose was merely “to preserve these old objects of special interest and the Indian remains in the pueblos in the southwest. It is meant to cover the cave dwellers and the cliff dwellers.” Today, Western legislators and citizens know better.