President Biden established two new national monuments in early 2023. National Monuments are permanently protected areas of either historic or scientific significance on federally owned land. Unlike National Forests, Wildernesses, and National Parks, National Monuments can be created without the approval of Congress.
The two newest additions, Avi Kwa Ame and the Castner Range National Monuments contain areas of archaeological, recreational, and cultural significance.
A President's Tradition
In many cases, approval for large-scale conservation efforts has to have come from Congress. However, thanks to the Antiquities Act of 1906, the president can create National Monuments on federally owned land. Since 1906, only three presidents (Nixon, Reagan, and H.W. Bush) have chosen not to create them.
By creating both of these monuments, along with Camp Hale in Colorado in 2022, President Biden became the fifth consecutive president to establish them. The current streak was started by President Clinton and continued through the presidencies of W. Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden.
What Does The Designation Mean?
National Monuments are permanently protected, meaning no future extractive industries or human habitation can occur on them. They are run and managed similarly to other protected areas like National Parks. The main difference is how they are created.
Because of the Antiquities Act, the president can act unilaterally to create one, bypassing congressional approval. The limits of presidential power have long been the most controversial part of National Monument creation.
Avi Kwa Ame National Monument
Located in Southern Nevada, the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument protects land considered sacred to the Mohave, Chemehuevi, and Southern Paiute Native Americans. Within its borders are sites of cultural, spiritual, and historical significance, including the aptly named Spirit Mountain, which is central to the creation story for many area tribes.
Also included in the monument are protected habitats of the Gila Monster, the largest Joshua tree forest in the contiguous US, and migration corridors for various endemic species of the desert southwest. Various recreation opportunities exist in the monument, including OHV use, hiking, stargazing, and photography.
Castner Range National Monument
Located in west Texas, the area that will become Castner Range National Monument has an interesting history. The range is located on the property of the U.S. Army’s Fort Bliss. The area was used as a testing site for Army units during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The army ceased operating in the Castner Range in 1966.
Once the National Monument has fully recovered from the effects of the various army tests, it will provide multiple recreation opportunities for the nearby residents of El Paso. Protecting the Castner Range also establishes migration and habitat corridors for various animals.
Additionally, it preserves sites of historical and archaeological significance that detail the storied history of the Apache and Pueblo people, the Comanche nation, and the Hopi and Kiowa Tribes.
Politics And Controversies
National Monuments are established for several reasons and are usually popular with the American public. Unfortunately, not all of the reasons for creating one are related to recreation, culture, or history. Sometimes, there is a political element involved.
At its most altruistic, National Monuments safeguard unique domestic natural assets. Thanks to the Antiquities Act, it’s also an easy win for presidents dealing with a hostile Congress that would otherwise disapprove. There are many who see it as a great way to increase the recreation economy. Others see it as presidential overreach.
A recent notable issue involved Bear Ears National Monument in Utah. Established under President Obama, the next president, Trump, severely reduced its size. At the time, it was seen as a very public rebuke of Obama’s policies. These back-and-forth moves are generally used for quick political gain and don’t make much sense in the long term.
For example, while President Trump rolled back Bears Ears, he also signed five new national monuments into law. Those moves were clearly at odds with a desire to shrink an already existing National Monument. It most likely means the Bears Ears controversy was an attempt to differentiate Trump from his predecessor and score political points with his supporters.
Another example involves President Biden. In 2022 he established the Camp Hale-National Divide National Monument in Colorado. Camp Hale is an area of historical importance and certainly deserves protection. However, as part of the White River National Forest, the area was already protected.
The creation was a win for Colorado senator Michael Bennet, an ally of President Biden. At the time of the National Monuments creation, Bennet was locked in a difficult reelection battle and needed a win. The unveiling of the Monument and a speech from Biden came only a month before the election. Senator Bennet claimed a big policy victory and won reelection.
Food For Thought: Does The Motivation Matter?
To some, absolutely. And it isn’t fair to assume that the creation of National Monuments always comes from the heart. However, if the net result is the preservation of cultural and historical sites, along with more recreation opportunities on land the government already owns, does it ultimately matter?
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