15 things you don't know about national monuments

From presidential besties to the biggest crowds, we hope these fifteen little known facts will convince you to let Secretary Zinke know why our monuments are sacred.
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In 1906, Teddy Roosevelt made Devil's Tower our country's first national monument.

In 1906, Teddy Roosevelt made Devil's Tower our country's first national monument.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law, which grants presidents the authority to declare “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.”

Left unsaid: whether a president can rescind national monument designation. But President Donald Trump may try. On April 26, Trump ordered Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review 27 national monuments designated since 1996 that contain at least 100,000 acres. As a first step, Zinke invited public comment on those under review—allowing just 15 days for citizens to weigh in on Bears Ears National Monument.

During the 15-day comment period on Bears Ears, 685,000 messages of support were submitted. “People need to speak up,” says Randi Spivak with the Center for Biological Diversity. “An attack on one national monument is an attack on them all.”

What can you do?

If you want to keep our national monuments intact, log your own comments here.

But before you do, here are 15 cool things that will make you love them more.

1. They started with cliff dwellers. In the 1100s, ancestral Native Americans began to carve whole villages from sheer rock walls below canyon rims in the Four Corners area of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

Cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park

Cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park

2. The devil was first. The first national monument was Devils Tower, Wyoming. The pillar of volcanic rock stands 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. In 1906, Roosevelt described the landmark as “an extraordinary example of the effect of wind erosion in the higher mountains.”

3. Teddy was on a roll. Theodore Roosevelt created another 17 national monuments before leaving office in 1909. More presidents followed his example: By 1943, there were 82 national monuments.

4. Frank fought hard. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated 221,610 acres in Wyoming as the Jackson Hole National Monument. Senator Edward Robertson dubbed the act a “foul, sneaking Pearl Harbor blow.” A legal challenge followed. The Antiquities Act survived, but only five national monuments were added in the next 27 years.

Grand Teton National Park is one of 30 national parks that started out as monuments.

Grand Teton National Park is one of 30 national parks that started out as monuments.

5. Monuments often become national parks. More than 30 of our 58 national parks started out as national monuments, including the Grand Canyon, Zion, Arches, Joshua Tree, and Mount Olympus. Even the contentious Jackson Hole National Monument became part of Grand Teton National Park. More than three million people visited that park in 2016; they spent an estimated $597 million in surrounding towns.

President Jimmy Carter protected more acreage than any other president.

President Jimmy Carter protected more acreage than any other president.

6. Go Jimmy! Jimmy Carter protected the most physical space of any president: He added 15 national monuments totaling 55,800,000 acres, all in Alaska. Barack Obama created or expanded 34 national monuments, the most of any president.

7. Size matters. The largest national monument? Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which preserves 582,781 square miles off Hawaii. The smallest: Stonewall National Monument, a .12-acre traffic island with a handful of trees in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where LBGT activists rallied after a 1969 police raid.

8. Who’s in charge? The National Park Service manages most national monuments; the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management oversee select parcels. The Department of Defense and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration get involved with select, remote sites that include marine ecosystems.

9. Which is the most (and least) popular? The National Park Service tracks visitors to 73 national monuments. Castle Clinton, built at Manhattan’s southern end just before the War of 1812, welcomed more than 4.8 million visitors last year. Only 100 people visited Aniakchak National Monument, where a volcanic explosion 3,500 years ago left a caldera six miles wide in Alaska’s Aleutian Mountains.

If you want to avoid the crowd, visit Aniakchak National Monument. 

If you want to avoid the crowd, visit Aniakchak National Monument. 

10. They’re legacy makers. When Congress can’t or won’t act, the Antiquities Act offers another means to protect land.

11. Take your drills and shove them! Traditional opponents to national monuments come from the oil and gas industry, mining, logging, and ranching. National monument designation does not eliminate these land uses completely—but the action typically means no new permits for these activities.

12. “It’s a federal land grab.” That’s what many locals in southeastern Utah Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. When Bill Clinton protected 1.7 million acres, home to Anasazi rock paintings, he stymied coal mine developers and gained eco-cred weeks before the 1996 presidential election.

13. “Where do national monuments come from, mommy? They are formed from existing federal lands, or property donated for conservation purposes.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

14. The bees are generous. One of the largest private donations came from Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt’s Bees, who donated 87,500 acres for Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, created by Obama last year.

15. Thank you Mr. Presidents. Sixteen presidents have proclaimed 157 national monuments. (Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush did not create national monuments. Nor has Donald Trump—yet.)

Olivia Dwyer writes about the outdoors from New York's Adirondack mountains. She is the former senior associate editor of Mountain magazine.

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