Why National Monuments Matter

Photo: Bob Wick/ BLM

Understanding the conservation role of these diverse, protected landscapes that carry a powerful (and unique) designation.

National monuments have gotten a lot of buzz in the press over the past few years. In 2018, President Trump sparked enormous controversy when he shrank the borders of Bears Ears National Monument by more than 80 percent. Three years later, President Biden made national news when he restored those borders. Then, in 2022, the Biden Administration created a brand-new national monument—Camp Hale-Continental Divide in Colorado—which could signal an oncoming wave of new designations. 

So, what lands are going to be in that wave? And, while we’re on the subject, what exactly is a national monument? Why do they feature so prominently in our national conservation discourse right now? To find out, we spoke with Jocelyn Torres at Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF), the group in charge of advocating for all the lands that don’t fit into your standard national-park or national-forest buckets. Think: wild and scenic rivers, historic and scenic trails, national conservation areas, and—you guessed it—national monuments. Here’s what Torres had to say about the fight for new monuments in the year ahead. 

Is a national monument the same as a national park? 

National monuments are lands reserved for their cultural, historic, or scientific significance. However, a national monument isn’t just a baby national park, Torres explains. While national parks must be created by acts of Congress, national monuments are usually established by the president. While some national monuments do end up evolving into national parks over time, plenty don’t. 

“It really depends on what agency is managing the national monument,” Torres says. “It could be the Parks Service, the Forest Service, or the Bureau of Land Management.” If the Parks Service is managing a national monument, it’s easy to transition it to a national park should the need arise. But if the monument is managed by one of the other organizations? 

In that case, “It’s probably not going to transition to a national park because that would take a separate act of Congress,” Torres says. 

Photo: Bob Wick/ BLM

Why monuments are critical to American conservation  

National monuments are one of CLF’s biggest areas of focus at the moment. They warrant attention because they occupy a unique niche (some might say loophole) in the American legislative system: Presidents can use executive action to unilaterally designate a national monument without having to get buy-in from Congress.

“It takes a lot of effort to get any kind of legislation through Congress at the moment,” Torres explains. That makes national monuments a way more efficient workaround for getting land protected fast.

The other cool thing about national monuments is that the designation is so nebulous. Some national monuments—like the Stonewall Inn in New York—are small urban lots that have cultural or historic significance. Others—like Bears Ears in Utah—are sweeping, million-acre swaths of wild landscape preserved for their biodiversity and value to Indigenous peoples. 

Because there is such a wide variety in what a national monument can be, Torres says that their determination is “up to the community and the public’s imagination.” It’s a unique, one-size-fits-all designation that can be applied to any number of places—making it one of the fastest and most versatile routes to protection for land across the U.S.  

What national monuments will we see next? 

In 2022, President Biden designated nearly 54,000 acres of the Colorado Rockies as Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument. Torres says that’s just the first of a handful of new monuments to come. 

Torres expects two—if not three—new monuments to be officially designated or expanded before the end of January 2023. Avi Kwa Ame as well as Owyhee Canyonlands (in Nevada and Oregon, respectively) top the list. Both are outstanding sites for outdoor recreation, including hiking, mountain biking, and wildlife viewing. 

CLF is also lobbying California senators to expand Berryessa Snow National Monument, which is located north of San Francisco and Sacramento. The expansion would protect surrounding lands that are sacred to local indigenous tribes. 

How to help

Right now is a critical time in the fight for new national monuments. “Congress has a narrow window between now and January to pass legislation,” Torres explains. So if you live in Nevada, Oregon, or California, contact your state legislators to tell them you support national monument designation in your state. 

“Even if you don’t live in one of these states, you can still reach out to your legislators,” Torres says. “All members of Congress vote for these things.” You can also sign the petition asking President Biden to protect Avi Kwa Ame via executive action. 

And if there’s a chunk of land you love in your own state? 

“Anyone can come up with the idea for what a next national monument should be,” Torres says. “Often, the idea for protecting a landscape comes from someone who really enjoys riding their mountain bike in that area or having picnics or hunting there every year.” All it takes is a passion for a place and the initiative to start talking to members of your community about protecting it. 

“Politics can be overwhelming, but there’s a role everyone can play,” Torres says. If you love a place, stand up for it. Contact local conservation groups, get a petition going, and consider reaching out to CLF to see how they can help. Who knows? Your backyard playground could be our nation’s next national monument. 

— Public Lands supports the Conservation Lands Foundation through the Public Lands Fund. Public Lands is committed to donating 1% of all sales to the Public Lands Fund, which supports organizations protecting new lands, improving existing lands, and furthering access and equity in the outdoors. 

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