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Six Million Sweet Acres

From the quiet canyons of Vermilion to the lavish wildflowers of Carrizo, Americans have nearly two dozen new national monuments to explore.

by Reed McManus

When Bill Clinton set out to designate new national monuments starting in 1996, mining, oil, and timber companies and their allies in Congress were apoplectic. Clinton’s actions amounted to nothing less than a “lock up” of 6.1 million acres of American land, they claimed, an undemocratic federal move that trampled the will of the people. Never mind that most of the monuments were proposed for protection by nearby residents and that scores of community meetings were held to determine the wisdom of setting them aside. Never mind that Clinton was motivated to invoke the Antiquities Act of 1906—the same tool Teddy Roosevelt used in 1908 to save 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon from prospectors and tourism promoters—because he faced an uncooperative Congress deaf to Americans’ calls for wildlands preservation. (By contrast, previous Congresses have liked monuments so much that they have reclassified 30 of them as national parks, including Arizona’s Petrified Forest, California’s Death Valley, Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and the Grand Canyon itself.)

“This is not about locking lands up,” Clinton argued while dedicating Giant Sequoia National Monument in California last year, one of 22 monuments he designated or expanded by presidential proclamation during his two terms in office. “This is about freeing lands up from the threat of development so children of the future can enjoy these places.”

Last year, then–Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt explained the Clinton administration’s push for new monuments as a way to resolve the conflicts that arise from the country’s broad policy of “multiple use” of public lands. “You can’t have a cattle ranch, a mine, a timber mill, and a campground all on the same forty acres,” Babbitt told Backpacker magazine while touring what would become Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado. “We [need to] think of public lands in terms of the dominant and preferable public use of that particular area. We’ve got to get away from this idea that every square acre is available for everything. These natural landscapes are unique, historic American treasures. They need more care and protection than we are giving them.”

Now that the Bush-Cheney oil-timber-mining juggernaut has let us know what it considers “dominant and preferable,” “locking up” public lands seems more prudent than imperious. Think of it as a way to lock out forces whose long-range vision for American lands stops at the next quarterly earnings statement. (Which is exactly how the Antiquities Act has been used since its inception: The same year the Grand Canyon was protected, Muir Woods National Monument in Northern California was set aside, a step ahead of plans to log it and submerge it under a reservoir.)

With the exception of two stunning tropical underwater ecosystems in the U.S. Virgin Islands, two 19th-century forts that once guarded New York’s harbor, and Abraham Lincoln’s summer retreat in northwest Washington, D.C., the “Clinton 22” are an archaeological and biological Grand Tour of the American West. They include 71,100-acre Agua Fria National Monument 40 miles north of sprawling Phoenix, home to 450 prehistoric sites (including four major settlements) as well as grassy mesas and formidable canyons; Pompeys Pillar near Billings, Montana, where William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition carved his signature and the date in sandstone during his return trip to St. Louis in 1806—the only remaining physical evidence of the Corps of Discovery’s passing; Minidoka Internment National Monument in Idaho, where more than 9,000 Japanese Americans were “relocated” during World War II; and Hanford Reach, 195,000 acres along the banks of the salmon-rich Upper Columbia River in Washington State.

In setting up the monuments, the Clinton administration didn’t want their new status to be used as an excuse to civilize them. No new visitor centers or highways were to be built, and no corporate concessionaires imported to feed and house sightseers. “We wanted people to experience these places just as they are,” says former Interior Department attorney Molly McUsic.

With the Bush administration, however, tourist development may be the least of environmentalists’ worries. It’s unlikely that Congress will move to rescind the monuments outright (after all, presidents have been using the Antiquities Act to protect undeveloped land since Roosevelt first applied the law, designating Wyoming’s Devils Tower, a geological landmark, in 1906). But the monuments could still suffer death by negligence or a thousand budget cuts.

Unlike national parks, where mining, logging, and other extractive activities are explicitly prohibited, each national monument has its own designation and management plan detailing which resources will be protected and what uses will be allowed. In March, Bush’s Interior secretary, Gale Norton, announced that she will look for ways to alter Clinton-era monuments, urging local officials to offer their views on boundary adjustments, vehicle use, access to private inholdings, rights-of-way, grazing and water rights, “as well as the wide spectrum of other traditional multiple uses that might be appropriately applied to these lands.” Environmentalists fear that Norton might try to allow coal mining in 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in Utah, reopen off-road-vehicle routes in Giant Sequoia National Monument in California, and bypass rules against grazing and logging in Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon. Bush has suggested that drilling in national monuments might be a good way to boost oil production, encouraged by a U.S. Geological Survey report that five of the new sites have “moderate or high” oil and gas potential. But this summer, Congress voted to ban new energy exploration in national monuments. At press time, the prohibition was expected to be included in the final Interior Department spending bill sent to the White House.

Join us in the following pages as we explore our newest national monuments. If we’re vigilant today, families could be enjoying these places generations from now, just as 5 million awestruck visitors will relish the Grand Canyon this year, blissfully unaware that its unparalleled vistas might have been compromised were it not for the stroke of a visionary president’s pen.

Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra.

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