Introduction to National Monuments “We don’t have histories in books, they are written on walls of our canyons.”
Regina Whiteskunk, 2016 National Congress of American Indians
America’s National Monuments span from Maine to Alaska to Hawaii and provide not just breathtaking scenery, critical wildlife habitat, and countless outdoor recreation and education opportunities, but also help preserve cultures, traditions and history important to our nation. With ruggedly iconic landscapes and stark beauty, places like Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments often come to mind when thinking about national monuments.
“We don’t have histories in books, they are written on walls of our canyons.”
Beyond providing breathtaking landscapes, America’s national monuments act as incredible biodiversity hotspots that speak to the majesty and imagination of the Creator. For example, Hawaii’s 582,578-square-mile Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is one of the world’s largest protected areas covering a vast ocean and exotic islands that offer sanctuary to remarkable corals, fish, sharks, whales and seabirds found nowhere else in the world. Described as the Noah’s Ark of botanical diversity, Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is home to 130 different butterfly species, while its’ forests house northern spotted owls, and its’ rivers are home to the brilliantly colored Jenny Creek Redband trout. While Utah’s Grand-Staircase Escalante contains over 640 bee species, with over 40 species new to science.
Whether gathering herbs, interpreting petroglyphs, collecting firewood, picking piñon nuts, hiking, camping, fishing, or prayerfully meditating on the beauty of God’s creation, protecting national monuments safeguards America’s rich cultural and spiritual heritage. Designating an area as a national monument helps ensure that the public can continue to access these incredible public lands as they have for generations.
How Are National Monuments Formed?
In the U.S., there are over 150 national monuments that have been designated by Congress or the president for specific natural, cultural or historic features. When Congress creates a national monument, it passes legislation designating an area as a national monument; this legislation then must be signed into law by the President. In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which gave U.S. Presidents the authority to create national monuments to protect historic artifacts, landscapes, and places of scientific value. After signing the Act into law, President Teddy Roosevelt created the first national monuments, which included the Grand Canyon. In fact, some places — like the Grand Canyon, Badlands and Zion — were first protected as national monuments before later becoming national parks. Over the past century, both Republican and Democrat presidents have used their power under the Antiquities Act to create national monuments as a way of recognizing and protecting our nation’s heritage.
Why is a National Monument’s Proclamation Important?
When congress or the president designate a national monument, the monument’s proclamation will describe the area’s natural, cultural and historic significance as well as layout the monument’s specific geographic boundaries. Each monument’s proclamation is unique and often includes descriptions of various traditional and permissible uses which may range from hiking, camping, and rafting to wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, grazing and herb gathering. Some monument proclamations may also restrict extractive industries and certain uses that may impact the monument’s natural, historical and cultural areas. National monuments and America’s protected public lands help fuel an $887 billion outdoor recreation industry, which sustains 7.6 million jobs and creates $65.3 billion in federal tax revenue and $59.2 billion in local and state tax revenue.
An Unprecedented Attack on America’s National Monuments
In 2017, the current Administration launched an unprecedented attack on America’s national monuments when 27 National Monuments throughout the U.S. came under review by the Department of the Interior. The administration targeted monuments formed after 1996 that were 100,000 acres or larger. The action intended to shrink the monument boundaries as well as open up protected areas to extractive industries including drilling, mining, commercial fishing, etc. Recognizing the historical, natural and sacred importance of these 27 national monuments, spiritual leaders from Earth Keepers have been active in defending our national monuments including authoring a clergy sign on letter to Congress and the Secretary of the Interior, submitting official comments during the monument review process, and organizing and speaking at various public events to support our national monuments.
Protecting Sacred Spaces: Standing in Solidarity with Tribal Communities
In November 2017, Earth Keepers helped organize nearly 40 spiritual leaders from various faiths and tribes from Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico to travel to Bears Ears National Monument to meet with tribal leaders. With major threats of development and from extractive industry, Earth Keepers helped organize spiritual leaders from the: Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Church of the Brethren, and Jewish traditions to meet with tribal leaders and listen and learn from them why Bears Ears is important to their culture, history and spirituality. Seeking to stand in solidarity with dozens of tribes that recognize Bears Ears as an important sacred, cultural and historic area, spiritual leaders on this trip wrote various op-eds, conducted interviews for national and denominational news outlets, and produced a video about the trip.
Despite these efforts and 2.7 million public comments in support of America’s national monuments, the then Interior Secretary recommended the downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah as well as urged significant changes to seven other national monuments. In December 2017, President Trump acted on the Utah recommendations by signing proclamations to shrink the 1.35 million acre Bears Ears National Monument by a devastating 85 percent and the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by 46 percent. Shrinking these national monuments puts their many cultural, natural, historical and spiritual values in danger of irreversible damage and destruction as the areas are opened up to extractive industry.
Get Involved: In the face of such alarming decisions, Earth Keepers remains firm in our commitment to be responsible stewards and keepers of God’s creation by protecting our national monuments. We continue to stand in solidarity with our nation’s tribes as we work together to protect these sacred lands while recognizing that these national monuments area a great gift of cultural, historical, and natural importance to all Americans. Earth Keepers is also encouraging spiritual leaders and faith communities to contact their congressional representatives to ask them to support various pieces of legislation aimed at protecting America’s national monuments and restoring the integrity of Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monuments.