National Monuments Essay

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A national monument is a historic or natural landmark, a historic or prehistoric structure, or other object of historic or scientific interest set aside by a national government for public enjoyment or edification. Ireland, Scotland, Singapore, and Wales have national monuments or systems of national monuments. The most extensive system is that of the United States.

In the United States, there are nearly 100 national monuments covering more than 70 million acres and ranging in size from less than 1 acre to 11 million acres. National monuments are different from national parks in that national monuments are usually smaller areas established to protect specific features of historic or scientific interest rather than spectacular natural areas with a wide variety of features (although the 11-million-acre WrangellSt. Elias National Monument proclaimed in 1978 was larger than any national park). Hunting, mining, and other consumptive uses such as grazing are permitted in national monuments, but are generally prohibited in national parks.

While only Congress can legislate national parks, a process that may take many years, the president can proclaim national monuments, a process that takes only the stroke of a pen. Since 1906 presidents have proclaimed more than 100 national monuments, many of which Congress has subsequently converted to national parks. Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Olympic National Parks all originated as national monuments. Congress has also created 38 national monuments. The National Park Service has responsibility for administering most of the national monuments. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service are the primary agencies that administer the rest.

The president derives the authority to create national monuments from the 1906 Antiquities Act, which authorizes the president to proclaim national monuments on federal lands that contain “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” The president is instructed to reserve “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” The original purpose of the act was to protect objects of antiquity, such as cliff dwellings, pueblos, and other archeological ruins in the southwest. Its sponsors assumed that national monuments would be small in area and confined to the southwest. The act proved to be loosely written, however, and enterprising presidents have been able to apply it to a wide range of sites. Although its use has been challenged in court, it has become a powerful executive tool for shaping sometimes controversial conservation policies in the United States.

That the Antiquities Act would not be used in the limited way its sponsors had intended became immediately evident when President Theodore Roosevelt used the reference to “objects of…scientific interest” to proclaim a natural geological feature, Devils Tower in Wyoming, as the first national monument in 1906. President Roosevelt continued to interpret the act broadly and in 1908 used it to proclaim an even larger “object of scientific interest”: the 800,000 acre Grand Canyon National Monument.

This expansive use of the Antiquities Act encountered no significant congressional opposition until 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming. The president saw this as a way to accept a donation of lands acquired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., for addition to Grand Teton National Park after Congress had declined to authorize the park expansion.

Critics protested that the president was using the Antiquities Act to circumvent Congress. Congress passed a bill to abolish the monument, but the president vetoed it. The state of Wyoming also challenged the proclamation in court. When the monument was finally incorporated into Grand Teton National Park, as a concession to opponents, the legislation prohibited further use of the Antiquities Act in Wyoming without the approval of Congress.

For decades afterward presidents used their authority to create national monuments sparingly and usually with advance congressional consultation and support. The next substantial use of the proclamation authority came in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter proclaimed fifteen new national monuments in Alaska after Congress had adjourned without passing a major Alaska lands bill strongly opposed in that state.

The presidential proclamation authority was not used again until 1996, when President Bill Clinton proclaimed the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on public land managed by the BLM in Utah. This action was controversial in Utah and several cases were filed challenging the designation of the monument on a number of grounds. The president directed that the monument should continue to be managed by the BLM, making it the first national monument that the BLM would manage. President Clinton subsequently used the presidential proclamation authority to establish 14 more new national monuments and significantly expand others. In 2001 the BLM created a National Landscape Conservation System to administer these new national monuments and other areas already under its jurisdiction.


  1. Bureau of Land Management, National Monuments Managed by the Bureau of Land Management,;
  2. National Park Service, “Antiquities Act of 1906,” www.;
  3. National Park Service, National Monuments Managed by the National Park Service,;
  4. Robert W. Righter, “National Monuments to National Parks: The Use of the Antiquities Act of 1906,” Journal of the Southwest (v.20, 1989);
  5. Hal Rothman, America’s National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation (University of Kansas Press, 1994);
  6. Raymond Harris Thompson, “Part One: The Antiquities Act of 1906,” Journal of the Southwest (v.42, 2000);
  7. Carol Hardy Vincent and Pamela Baldwin, National Monuments and the Antiquities Act (Congressional Research Service, 2000).

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