“One hundred eight degrees in Redding,” the radio announced. That brief message cemented my decision to escape California’s Central Valley and drive west into the Coast Range. Perhaps I could escape the heat by climbing Snow Mountain, the highest peak in the vicinity. It would also be an opportunity to investigate Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, which President Obama had created only three weeks ago. Before the site made it onto the state maps and attracted more public attention, this could be a good time to see what the fuss was all about.

The monument made a pleasant first impression, with an entranceway framed by low, honey-colored hills coated with soft grasses like the fur of a teddy bear. Its second impression, however, was much less flattering. Beyond the golden hills lay a valley enclosed by singed, scraggly mountains. The slopes were patchy and riddled with ATV trails. If these mountains had a face, it was the face of the town drunk who had cut himself shaving several days ago with a rusty razor blade. It lacked dignity and beauty; why did the president think this place deserved national monument status?

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave presidents, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, the power to create national monuments from public lands in order to protect objects of historic or scientific interest. It was meant to be a tool of limited function, used to protect Native American artifacts in the Southwest from being looted by “pot hunters”. Congress thought they were giving the president the equivalent of a slingshot; in reality, they had handed him a bazooka. Two years later, Roosevelt created Grand Canyon National Monument to safeguard a natural treasure when the legislative branch was unwilling to act. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld these proclamations, no matter the size of the area or the nature of the object to be protected. Some of the monuments, like the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, have since been expanded and given additional protection by our Congress as national parks.

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