Why Monuments and Not National Conservation Areas? More Monument-al Reflections

A few quotes and reflections about Monuments. In some sense, they seem more about politicians getting credit from supportive groups, rather than good things happening on the ground. And those experienced with BLM processes please correct me if I’ve gotten some things wrong.

First of all, there’s kind of a philosophical question about “protection.” If there are the many wondrous things talked about, say, in a Monument proclamation, then existing laws and regulations must have already protected them, so no biggy, really. To protect archeological sites on far-ranging areas like 1.1 mill acres, you probably need more law enforcement. The same groups that work so hard on Monuments (I’m talking big NGOs) could easily fund those kinds of collaborative efforts.

So if we go by the rhetoric, then there are unspecific future things that could be proposed, that we need to keep from happening before they are proposed, because we can’t trust existing statutes, regulations and processes to protect the environment. And the environment in this place is more important than elsewhere, for various reasons.

So what is this desire to Monumentize really about? For the Prez, it could just be politics as usual, rewarding friends with a frisson of punishing enemies (Utah is right next door to this one). But that’s not entirely it.


I ran across an article in the Wall Street Journal about a rich person named Elaine Wynn in Las Vegas and the Basin and Range National Monument. This story is about Congress, but the principle’s the same..important ($) people want Monuments.

She has remade herself as a world-level art collector and a force in public art, supporting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and using her influence to help create a national monument designation to protect land around Michael Heizer’s City—a 1.25-mile-long earthwork sculpture in Nevada. She has taken her work in Nevada education to the national level: She is chairman of Communities in Schools, which provides resources to disadvantaged children. It recently received a surprise $133 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife.
Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says Wynn was a key figure in the 2015 creation of Basin and Range National Monument, which protects the 704,000 acres surrounding Heizer’s City. President Barack Obama approved the designation. “When [Elaine] started making calls to Congress,” Govan says, “somehow I was received in a different way.”


Let’s also look at this op-ed from the Durango Herald by an outdoor businessperson from last Friday.

“There is a new community-led movement for the president to designate the Dolores River Canyon Country as a national monument, which would open new avenues for local economic growth, increase resources to thoughtfully manage these wildlands and deepen the quality of life in our community. We believe that a landscape-scale national monument would open the door to better management and conservation, and provide additional resources to land managers to accommodate for sustainable recreation and continued access.”

Hmm. “New avenues for local economic growth”- what does that mean exactly? More people coming to town? But the area is overcrowded already. And as we’ve seen with the San Gabriels, a Monument does not necessarily come with more funding attached. I don’t know about “deepening the quality of life” but in other parts of Colorado, more people does not actually deepen the quality of life. And again, the author says “provide additional resources to land managers.”

I see several problems with this thinking. 1. More growth and people is not necessarily better, not if it leads to housing problems, etc. 2. Monuments need Monument plans, which distracts managers from.. actually managing (and reopen disagreements, which doesn’t necessarily “deepen the quality of life” at least not for the people involved). 3. Even if they did get additional resources, would the new number of bodies outstrip the new resources? and 4. Even if they did get more resources, as new Monuments pop up everywhere, they will be competing with each other and who is to say that a Dolores River Monument would beat out Chimney Rock, Brown’s Canyon, or Canyon of the Ancients, or Bears’ Ears or ..

Another interesting part of the op-ed is this..

Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper are leading the way to protect the Dolores River Canyon County, and have introduced legislation to designate a National Conservation Area to protect nearly 68,000 acres of the river corridor through Ponderosa Gorge. We are very supportive of this legislation and urge the senators to do anything they can to ensure it becomes law. However, the legislation does not encompass the entirety of the watershed, and politics in Congress are so uncertain that there may not be a viable path for the bill to become law.

If you take a look at the bill, it tends to have the same feel as a Monument; it is in fact very detailed about what’s in and what’s out. It has a FACA committee to be established within 180 days.. good luck with that! It’s got motorized travel only on existing routes, no new temp or permanent roads except for public health and safety, yes to grazing, but withdrawals from future minerals (401b). Uranium crops up again..

(1) IN GENERAL.—Nothing in this title affects valid leases or lease tracts existing on the date of enactment of this Act issued under the uranium leasing program of the Department of Energy within the boundaries of the Conservation Area.


So there are National Conservation Areas.  Congress gets NCAs, the Prez gets Monuments.  One can imagine if political friends of an Admin want this kind of thing, it’s much easier to get.. just a stroke of a pen (OK, so obviously they do talk to some people in advance).   But of course, as with NCA’s, first they make the decision about what’s in and out, and then have public comment and an EIS on any decision space left. Which kind of leaves the impression.. yes, NEPA is superimportant, as is public involvement, including marginalized communities.. but not for really important decisions.

It seems like an advantage of Monuments that they can do some Service-First-y things with the FS; whereas I don’t know how they handle FS land in and around NCAs.

But anyway, for now, just for the BLM, we have a variety of conservation designations – Monuments, ACECs, NCAs, Wilderness, and WSAs. Perhaps other citizens find this to be needlessly confusing? And there’s more encouragement of ACECs in the proposed BLM public lands rule.

If I were elected President (a candidate of the Good Governance Party), I’d ask the Secretaries to make a table of all the existing protected area designations on the Forest Service and BLM. The table would include what activities are allowed and which not, with maps. For each specific area, I’d ask how much funding went to work within those areas. Then I think Admins and Congress would have a better picture of the whole array of land restrictions, and where the bucks actually get to the ground. I’d also think that some of these designations could be fitted into simplified bands across the FS and BLM as to what activities are in and out, to increase public understanding of, and perhaps make it easier to enforce, the rules designed to protect from impacts.

7 thoughts on “Why Monuments and Not National Conservation Areas? More Monument-al Reflections”

    • That’s not a table of what’s in and out in each area. It’s more of a generalized description.

      I realize that’s complicated (we used to make tables of different Co Roadless alternatives, the 2001 Rule and Wilderness) but it can also be very enlightening.. as in one convo with an ENGO rep.. “you know that’s more restrictive than Wilderness, right?” “Yes, but I still want it in.”

  1. A couple of observations on these various land management units:

    1) Monuments are set aside by the Prez under the Antiquities Act. NCAs typically (perhaps uniformly) are the result of legislation.

    2) The question of whether the Antiquities Act authorizes a subsequent Prez to reduce or eliminate a previous monument is still open, as far as I know. NCAs established by statute can, obviously, only be altered by statute (unless the initial legislation provides otherwise). Protected areas based solely on proclamations can presumably be altered or revoked by subsequent proclamation.

    3) BLM’s term (“National Conservation Lands”) is a catch-all term developed by the agency – it has (as far as I know) no particular legal significance.

    4) The reason Congress uses NCAs (and National Recreation Areas, or NRAs) as protective designations is precisely because these terms have no fixed meaning. Usually an NCA is the result of compromises that, for example, prohibit certain future developments (say, mining) while specifically allowing certain existing activities (say, hunting) to continue unimpeded. Because the NCA concept is flexible, it can accommodate locality-specific arrangements.

    I agree that some sort of land management unit dictionary could be useful, and I totally agree that without more law enforcement personnel at least some of these unit designations will have only limited practical effect (the graphic at p.29 of https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-19-643 on federal lands law enforcement has always stuck with me), but there is at least some method to the madness.

    • Thanks, Rich, I think I read to much into the generic NCL description on the web. I have been assured that NCA’s can only be designated by Congress, so will fix it in the post. So an interesting question is “if these are locally supported compromises, why don’t they just shoot through Congress?” or “why do other Senators and Reps care enough to vote against them?” Maybe someone knows the answer.

      It was suggested to me that I look in the Antiquities Act to find the origin of NCAs. But I’m thinking someone out there knows that as well.

      Thanks for the link to the graphic! I posted that separately.

  2. “if these are locally supported compromises, why don’t they just shoot through Congress?”

    Bingo! The answer is they are neither locally supported nor compromises. I’ve been following several of these proposals like the CORE Act and the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative. They claim their proposals are a widely supported consensus, but in reality they are simply an agenda agreed to in advance by a few Democrat controlled county commissions and big environmental groups. They developed the specifics of the proposals through so-called “collaboratives” that were chaired by orgs like the Wilderness Society that basically said “this is what we’re doing, if you don’t like it, sit down and shut up.” Disfavored recreation groups like motorized users were either excluded from the process entirely or else given token representation and then were promptly out voted, with the environmental groups then claiming to have motorized support just because they were on the committee. With the GPLI motorized groups realized this and walked out.

    The end result is that there’s still a lot of opposition from disenfranchised groups who then go up the chain and enlist the help of the republican congressional reps who represent these areas to block the bills in Congress. That’s how you get Wilderness bills that are supported by the local county commissions but not the congressional reps for the same area, and why Wilderness legislation for the western slope is being introduced by congressmen from the front range.

    • Exactly right Patrick. Same situation in Montana. Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act is being disengenuously promoted. It’s incredibly self-serving and discriminatory, thus the opposition from Senator Daines. I can’t help but think that if these bills were fairly crafted with the excluded groups allowed to the table, most of the bills would have passed years ago.

  3. Another question one might ask is why these areas can’t be/weren’t adequately addressed by the normal land management planning process. What features do candidates for these higher-level designations share? I’ve often thought that when local land management decisions are being made based on broader political interests, then those decisions should be made at a higher political level that recognizes non-local stakeholders. (Sometimes the reason is lack of local authority to make a decision that needs to be made, often meaning to prohibit a particular activity. Sometimes maybe it’s lack of local will.)


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