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Our National Monuments Introduction

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Here are the draft first two parts of the introduction I wrote for “Our National Monuments”. I would appreciate any feedback, either through the linked poll or via comments.


Ask a person on the street to name a national monument, and you will probably hear about the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, or memorials commemorating our presidents and war veterans. However, in the United States, the term has a more specific meaning and at the same time includes features more general than built landmarks as defined in the Antiquities Act:

the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, 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 United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as part of thereof parcels of lands, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.
In 1906, as the western frontier was closing, preservation of archeological sites in the Southwest gained national attention. As Congress was debating, looting of archeological sites escalated. Recognizing that the legislative process could be too slow to prevent permanent damage, Edgar Hewett and John Lacey created the Antiquities Act to enable a quicker executive response. Consistent with the Progressive Era’s vision of common long-term ideals served by a competent and forceful government, the Antiquities Act used broad language in a modest-looking bill to entrust vast powers to the President. The bill states that national monuments are federally protected areas containing objects of historic or scientific interest. The President can swiftly proclaim them with only a signature. The versatility of the law, used by 17 Presidents from both parties, would make it a cornerstone of preservation in America.

President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed as the first national monument Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a natural feature of geologic interest. By the end of 1906, he had proclaimed Petrified Forest National Monument in Arizona over a large natural area of 60,000 acres. Congress had been debating over the Grand Canyon since 1882, but even as commercialism was running unchecked, by 1908, it had not yet acted to protect the quintessential American wonder. President Roosevelt did, by proclaiming Grand Canyon National Monument, an area over 800,000 acres. Many landscape-style national monuments would follow. In 1978, President Carter made the most substantial use of the Antiquities Act by proclaiming eleven national monuments in Alaska, the largest expansion of protected lands in history. Several dwarfed the Grand Canyon in size. In the 21st century, even larger marine areas received protections as national monuments.

What distinguishes a national monument from a national park, then? National Park Portfolio (1917), the National Park Service’s first publication, acknowledges that “the name monument is clumsy and misleading.” Indeed, small archeological and historical sites alluded to by the term “antiquities” constitute the minority of today’s approximately 130 national monuments. According to the current National Park Service (NPS) terminology, a national monument is “smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.” However, some national parks are small, while many national monuments are large and equally diverse. The difference resides not in the lands themselves but rather in the way they are protected.

Congress designates national parks, but presidents can proclaim only national monuments. The NPS–justifiably one of the most recognized and beloved federal agencies–manages all the national parks. However, national monuments’ management spreads across the NPS, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Forest Service (USFS), and five other lower-profile agencies. National parks, established for preservation and the “enjoyment of the people” (per the NPS Organic Act of 1916), receive yearly funding from Congress. The money goes towards the maintenance and development of infrastructure to support visitation. National monuments are created for conservation. Their proclamation generally lacks funding, resulting in a scarcity of facilities, information, and publicity needed to “put them on the map” for the general public. When they became popular enough, Congress often redesignated them as national parks, reinforcing the perception that national monuments are less important. Like Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon, thirty national monuments would become national parks, attesting to their intrinsic value. However, the disjointed jurisdiction and lack of funding combined to make national monuments rather obscure destinations.


This all changed on April 26, 2017, when several national monuments made the headlines on major news outlets. That day, President Trump signed an unprecedented executive order to review all the national monuments created through the Antiquities Act since 1996 that were larger than 100,000 acres. The review’s objective was to determine if former presidents had abused their power and if the protections curtailed economic growth, eyeing removing protections towards industrial development.

The review targeted a total of 27 out of the 35 larger protected areas. They included all five marine national monuments and 22 of the land-based ones. Almost all of them are located in the West, just like our first 15 national parks, owing to the more arid climate and rugged topography that discourage settlement but bestow abundant natural beauty. The exception is Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument located in Maine. But as quipped by writer Stephen Trimble, “Maine is really part of the Western wilderness; it’s just misplaced.” Roxane Quimby had acquired and donated those lands to the federal government specifically to establish the national monument.

Together, the national monuments at risk represent a broad cross-section of natural environments, from deep canyons to high mountains, from cactus-covered plains to conifer forests, from deserts to lush river habitats. Those 22 land national monuments cover a significant portion of the American landscape, totaling about 11 million acres. For comparison, the 51 national parks in the contiguous United States total about 19 million acres. The marine national monuments are another order of magnitude, totaling 218 million acres.

Besides their vastness and diversity, those lands hold natural and historical treasures that rival those found in our beloved national parks. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument’s Paria Canyon is more than twice as long and every bit as impressive as Zion National Park’s Virgin River Narrows. The monument also houses unique rock formations like The Wave that has become world-famous. California’s densest population of Cholla cactus thrives in Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness of Mojave Trails National Monument rather than in the better known Cholla Cactus Garden of Joshua Tree National Park. Giant Sequoia National Monument protects more sequoia groves–almost half of the total number–than Sequoia and Kings National Parks. The Sonoran Desert portions included in Ironwood Forest National Monument and Sonoran Desert National Monument are as beautiful and representative as those in Saguaro National Park, if not more pristine. There is no national park where you could wander amid an array of petroglyphs as numerous as in Gold Butte National Monument or Basin and Range National Monument.

Chronologically, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, proclaimed in 1996 by President Clinton, was the first national monument under review. The last one was Bear Ears National Monument, proclaimed in 2016 in the waning days of President Obama’s administration. Both embody promising new ideas for conservation.

Per the Antiquities Act, Presidents can create national monuments only from federal lands, not from state nor private lands, so they are not “land grabs.” However, after the proclamation, management had generally been transferred from one federal agency, the BLM, to another, the NPS. The culture and mandate of those two agencies differ significantly. NPS lands are only for preservation and compatible recreational uses. The BLM administers more surface land than any other federal agency, one in every 10 acres of land in the United States. However, those lands were considered leftovers without clear guidelines for use. Not until the BLM received its Organic Act (mission statement) from the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 were those lands recognized to have a public value and actively managed with a multi-use framework. By default, all traditional activities are authorized: logging, drilling, mining, cattle grazing, hunting, off-road driving. Additional protection can be achieved by converting those lands into national monuments. As an agency aligned with rural land users, the BLM would emphasize collaboration with local communities and support a range of traditional activities as long as they were compatible with the proclamation’s conservation objectives. Secretary of the Interior Babbitt envisioned a new conservation role from the BLM that would later be formalized with the creation of the National Landscape Conservation System in 2000:

it can become the greatest modern American land management agency, the one that sets the standard for protecting landscapes, applying evolving knowledge and social standards, and bringing people together to live in harmony with the land.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument marked the first time a new national monument – the largest national monument in the continental United States! – was created under the BLM model of conservation. Subsequently, all the large national monuments would remain with the agency and follow that model. Despite the BLM’s more inclusive vision of conservation, the review targeted 18 of the monuments they managed. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), another multiple-use agency, came second with 5 of them. Scientists back a new goal to conserve 30% of U.S. Lands and Oceans by 2030 to protect the earth’s climate and biodiversity. As empty lands are no longer available for the NPS model of conservation, the BLM model of conservation is our best hope to achieve it. Over the past half-century, the only new extensive parklands with federal protections have been national monuments.

Bears Ears National Monument is a cultural landscape populated millennia before there was a state of Utah. The tribes hold the land sacred because it is their ancestors’ burial site and a continual source of physical and spiritual healing. Five tribes have connections to this area: the Hopi, Navajo, Mountain Ute, Zuni, and Ute. They agreed to set their generations-old differences apart to petition President Obama to establish Bears Ears National Monument. It was the first native-driven national monument. For the first time, its proclamation assigned shared management responsibilities between the tribes and the federal government, with guaranteed access for native traditional uses. As such, Bears Ears National Monument was a significant step in social and racial justice, righting and healing the wrongs stemming from the American West’s settlement. The native and environmental communities held hopes for a new conservation model converging the national parks ideals with the indigenous respect and worship for the land. Still, the review process barely gave them a voice.

The language of the Antiquities Act is so general that its limits are unclear. Both the courts and legislatures have repeatedly sustained the previous presidents’ actions, finding that the smallest area compatible with preservation can be quite large. Should local voices have priorities over the nation’s interests? Does an economy based on tourism and recreation work better than one based on resource extraction? Both sides of the argument have merits, but for a long time, the vast majority has been approving of protecting our natural and cultural heritage. Visitation numbers also show that recreation has become the dominant use of public lands. People from all walks of life and all political persuasions can relate to nature and find common ground in our public lands. Since President Theodore Roosevelt enthusiastic wielding of the Antiquities Act, a pattern has repeated itself time and time again: controversy and local outrage over new national monuments, eventually turning into near-universal approval. The public comment period of the summer of 2017 had generated overwhelming support for the national monuments under review.

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