America’s National Monuments Are Our Heritage
Public lands are where we became scientists. One of us first learned about ecology while hiking through the northern Appalachian Mountains during childhood summers. Many years later, as a doctoral student, she used historical field journals from the 19th century to trace changes in plant communities in Acadia National Park. Another lived out of a tent in Zion National Park, five months pregnant, after a career change. She was searching for wildflowers with potential for restoring land that had been degraded by invasive species. One of us visited the Adirondacks as a reprieve from graduate school stress. When things got tough, a weekend in the woods (disconnected from cell service and emails) reminded her what really matters. Public lands provided us with opportunities to grow, study, and relax. We want to conserve these lands, and these opportunities, for the future.
We are a group of past and present David H. Smith conservation research fellows: we study diverse topics from molecules and genes to lakes and mountains, in ecosystems across the country. We work with academic, non-profit, and government institutions to tackle big problems in conservation. We have seen firsthand the importance of public lands — as research laboratories, landscapes for recreation, and hubs of local economies — as we work to understand and conserve nature. Our public lands, and the potential they hold for understanding nature and inspiring the next generation of scientists, are priceless.
National Monuments are a vital part of our system of public lands. They protect our country’s iconic landscapes, from California’s giant sequoias and redwoods, to the Southwest’s red rock deserts, and east to the northwoods of Maine. But, National Monuments are in jeopardy. In April, President Trump signed an executive order directing the Secretary of the Interior to review 27 of our protected National Monuments. This move could reduce or eliminate any of the listed National Monuments, which will inhibit future research, conservation and recreation.
The 27 national monuments proposed for review were established by presidents via the Antiquities Act of 1906. This Act was introduced and passed through Congress with bipartisan support, and was championed by Republican president Theodore Roosevelt. The purpose of the Antiquities Act is to protect America’s premier historical, cultural, and scientifically-important sites. Since the Act’s establishment, 16 subsequent presidents have designated or expanded 157 national monuments, amounting to nearly 850 million protected acres. Presidential use of the Act has been critical to quickly protecting national landmarks, from world-renowned archaeological and geological sites, such as Canyons of the Ancient in Colorado, to biodiversity hotspots like Northeast Canyons and Seamounts in the Atlantic Ocean. Some National Monuments became so beloved that Congress designated them as National Parks, including Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Joshua Tree.
The Monuments proposed for review contain important links to our past. Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument has been an important research site for uncovering fossils, including over 40 dinosaur skeletons, one of them an undescribed species of tyranosaur. In Nevada, Basin and Range protects the largest concentration of prehistoric rock art in the state. Without the protection afforded by National Monument status, future fossil and archaeological discoveries could be lost forever.
National Monuments protect wildlife and preserve landscapes for biodiversity. Cascade Siskiyou in Oregon was the first National Monument created specifically to protect biodiversity. This monument was expanded under President Obama to connect a patchwork of protected areas, allowing wildlife to migrate across the landscape. The largest marine reserve, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, is of the world’s few climate refugia for sensitive coral reef ecosystems. Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument protects a landscape that naturalists John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, and Teddy Roosevelt explored and noted for its rugged beauty and biodiversity. National Monument status protects diverse of habitats across the country and preserves landscapes that provide clean air and drinking water for all of us.
Scientists are not alone in thier support for National Monuments. Visitation rates to National Monuments show immense support for these public lands. We conservatively estimate that more than 7 million people visit the National Monuments proposed for review each year — a figure that excludes the most recent 7 designations for which data are not available. Recreational opportunities for these visitors include observing wildlife, exploring ruins, hiking, hunting, and fishing. While Monument designation restricts some commercial uses of the land, compromises can be reached to permit activities such as timber harvest and grazing. National Monuments provide an overall net boost to the local economy: Headwaters Economics examined 17 western National Monuments and found that every local economy expanded after the designation, and that the local population, employment, and income all increased. By continuing to visit and enjoy these Monuments, we can show our support for our natural lands and help support local communities.
National Monuments are a link to our past and a gift to our future. Now is the time to raise your voice and submit a public comment in support of the 27 Monuments proposed for review. Comments are due Monday July 10. We also urge you to visit your public lands. You never know what you might find!
This op-ed was written by a group of 20 past and present David H. Smith Postdoctoral fellows.