I Fell In Love With This National Treasure— And It May Disappear Tomorrow

Why I care so much about these 293,000 acres

In February of this year, I flew to Las Vegas, rented a car, and set out towards the Utah/Arizona border on a trip I’d wanted to take for years. Months earlier, after applying time and again, I’d finally won a coveted permit to visit The Wave in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument — a photographer’s dream. What I didn’t expect was that it was the rest of Vermilion Cliffs — with its colorful, wavy, perfectly imperfect sandstone formations and brainrock — that would captivate me most and make me want to plan a return trip immediately.

But what I really didn’t expect was that 2 months later, President Trump would issue an executive order calling into question whether anyone else should be allowed to have the unforgettable experience I did. I’d like to share with you why these national monuments are so important to me, and deserve protection for all current and future generations of Americans.

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona is one of the most unique and beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s also one of 27 national monuments under threat.

President Trump’s executive order directed the Interior Department to review numerous national monuments created since 1996, including Vermilion Cliffs, to assess whether they were properly formed under the Antiquities Act and their “effects on surrounding lands and communities”.

What is the Antiquities Act?

You’re probably familiar with national parks — they protect America’s most treasured natural, cultural, and scientific resources and are known throughout the world. National parks prohibit activities that destroy or consume resources, such as hunting, logging, mining, collecting, etc. National Parks can only be created by act of Congress, which often takes decades. So how do we ensure these sensitive areas are preserved and protected before that legislation is finally passed?

An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities”, signed in 1906, allows the President to turn lands already under federal control into national monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest”.

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Over the past 100+ years, this law has been used by presidents of both parties (8 Republicans and 8 Democrats) to protect our country’s most important resources.

Did you know that half of the country’s 10 most-visited national parks started out as monuments declared under the Antiquities Act?

Perhaps you’ve heard of some of them:

  • Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona started as Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt
  • Zion National Park, Utah was originally Mukuntuweap National Monument, formed in 1909 by William Howard Taft
  • Olympic National Park, Washington was proclaimed Mount Olympus National Monument in 1909 by Teddy Roosevelt
  • Acadia National Park, Maine was once Sieur de Monts National Monument, thanks to Woodrow Wilson in 1916
  • Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming includes the former Jackson Hole National Monument, proclaimed in 1943 by FDR

In fact, nearly half of today’s 59 national parks got their start as national monuments, including Joshua Tree, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Death Valley, Petrified Forest, and Denali National Parks. And with 4.5 million visitors in 2016, let’s not forget Fort Wood National Monument, better known today as Statue of Liberty National Monument.

These national monuments turned iconic national parks show how important the Antiquities Act is as a tool for environmental conservation — some national monuments waited more than 50 years before Congress acted to protect them in legislation. If Petrified Forest hadn’t been declared a monument in 1906, would Route 66 travelers have left any petrified wood there by the time it become a national park in 1958?

Zion (left) and Grand Canyon (right) National Parks started out just like the national monuments under review today.

Monuments Under Threat

The Department of the Interior has released a list of the 27 specific monuments under review. Over half of the land-based monuments (12 of 22) were established more than 15 years ago, and are now well-established boons to their local economies and communities.

I’ve been fortunate to visit 3 of the monuments under review in the past few years, and each has been a shining example of the beauty created by powerful forces of nature at work over many thousands of years.

  • Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is easily in the top 3 places I’ve ever been. From the famous Wave in Coyote Buttes North, to the uniquely intricate sandstone formations and teepees of Coyote Buttes South, to the alien terrain of more remote regions, this area is like nothing else on Earth. Around every corner is a fragile and perfectly sculpted landscape that would easily be trampled or destroyed if not for the protection of the last 17 years. With more than 50,000 Wave permit applications a year, the Bureau of Land Management needs additional help managing this area, not a free-for-all that would quickly destroy it.
Fragile, paper-thin sandstone formations like this one have survived thanks to the protections of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has it all: ancient natural bridges and arches, winding slot canyons, dinosaur fossils, petrified wood, sandstone cliffs and formations abound. You can spend weeks here and still not explore all of the “highlights”, not to mention the lesser known areas waiting to be discovered.
  • Giant Sequoia National Monument, bookending Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, is home to dozens of groves of ancient Sequoia trees, the largest trees in the world that can only grow in a narrow region. Before the protection afforded to Sequoias and Coastal Redwoods through state and national parks, logging and deforestation was rampant in California — meaning the protection of these unique trees and their old growth forest environment continues to be essential.

Each of these 3 monuments easily passes the Antiquities Act bar of being landmarks of cultural and scientific interest, and I certainly hope that we and our future generations will be able to visit the others and see their individual splendor firsthand. Patagonia has created an interactive map/list of all the monuments under threat, where you can learn more about the unique resources of each one.

Grand Staircase-Escalante’s slot canyons (left) and Giant Sequoia’s many-legged inhabitants (right) are under threat.

Benefits to Local Communities

In addition to the natural, historic, and scientific reasons for protecting these national treasures are the benefits they provide to nearby communities: boosting local economies, creating jobs, supporting small businesses, and of course providing top-notch recreational opportunities in the great outdoors.

In Utah, where sentiment against national parks and “federal land grabs” in some areas is particularly caustic, the National Park Service estimates that in 2016 park visitors contributed $1.1 billion to neighboring communities and supported 17,900 jobs through spending on hotels, restaurants, groceries, gas, and other services. (And as any monuments designated under the Antiquities act must already be federally controlled, it’s not really a “land grab”)

The Milky Way above Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Among the national monuments under review — much less visited than the famous national parks of Utah — one economic research firm found that all the local economies it studied expanded after the creation of new national monuments nearby. Population, employment, personal income, and per-capita income all increased.

In my case, I am reasonably certain we would never have visited or spent numerous nights at hotels and restaurants in gateway communities like Kanab and Escalante, Utah if not to explore the amazing national monuments nearby.

The Antiquities Act makes all this possible: protecting our nation’s most important resources on existing federal land, subsequently improving local economies, creating jobs, and providing the outstanding recreational opportunities America is famous for worldwide. America’s national monuments are, quite literally, the future of our national parks.

How can you help?

If you believe these lands should be protected for all Americans now and in the future, there are several easy ways to make your voice heard:

  1. Submit your comments to the Interior Department by the deadline on Monday, July 10, 2017 at 11:59PM EST. You don’t have to write a full essay — just taking a few minutes to write a couple sentences will help! More than 1.2 million public comments have already been submitted.
  2. Spread the word! Tell your friends why you support this issue and invite them to join the fight to save our national monuments.
  3. Let your representatives know you care about public lands. This is not the only challenge our public lands will face in the current administration and congress (see here or here, for example), so make sure your representatives know this matters to you. Resistbot is a quick way to message your elected officials in only a couple minutes.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me in supporting our public lands for future generations!