The problem with national monuments

President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order adding 105,919 acres of National Forest System land to the San Gabriel National Monument.

According to a statement by the White House, the lands added to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument “contain spectacular cultural, geological, and ecological resources. A diversity of animals, birds, reptiles, and other wildlife, including numerous sensitive, threatened, and endangered species, live among the unique geological and ecological features of the area, including its unusual canyons, chapparal and coastal sage scrub lands, riparian woodlands, and conifer forests.”

The San Gabriel National Monument is also one of six places the travel magazine Fordor urged readers not to visit in 2024, saying the monument is overwhelmed with trash and graffiti.

Added the Los Angeles Daily News:

What was intended to be the “crown to the Valley of Angels,” the living monument of chaparral, oak and conifer trees as well as numerous picnic, camping and fishing sites, has become “covered in trash, tagged with graffiti, and (is) posing an increasing threat to nature,” according to the magazine.

Even after monument status was bestowed in 2014 by President Barack Obama, the area, along with the entire 700,000-acre Angeles National Forest, was left in the hands of the U.S. Forest Service to manage. But the U.S. Forest Service, under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, did not get an allotment of dollars for the designation. Instead, the USFS must rely on corporate donations and the yeoman’s work of volunteer groups to maintain and manage the monument.

Recent publicity highlighted a portion of the monument at the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, which in the summer became inundated with people who left behind diapers, food wrappers and even mattresses. In a recent article in this newspaper, the USFS said it did not have enough money or resources to repair large portions devastated by storms and overuse, resulting in closure of more than 38% of the campgrounds.

Most Americans probably think a national monument designation ensures special protection and resources for public lands. Too often they add more layers of bureaucracy on top of land management, while shutting out local communities and making active management and other multiple uses of public lands more costly and prohibitive.

The Antiquities Act gives U.S. Presidents authority to declare “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as national monuments. The law’s original purpose was to protect archaeological sites, or “antiquities,” and other specific, definable objects and landscapes in federal ownership at risk of theft or desecration.

The law states monuments should be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected. Four months after the passage of the Antiquities Act, President Roosevelt declared Wyoming’s Devils Tower our first national monument. The designated area covered just 1,304 acres, now dwarfed by the 452,000-acre San Gabriel National Monument.

Over the last century, presidents have expanded the use of the Antiquities Act to make its original purpose and intent unrecognizable. For example, President Obama issued 34 monument proclamations directing the management of over 550 million acres of federal lands, waters, and resources.

This includes the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument in 2016, covering nearly 3 million acres which are entirely underwater off Cape Cod. Denied their livelihoods, the Atlantic fishermen have so far unsuccessfully challenged the designation in court.

Since taking office, President Biden has established or expanded seven national monuments. Some want him to add many more to support his administration’s pursuit to set aside 30% of the nation’s lands and waters over the next decade (known as “30×30”).

For those wanting to set aside public lands from management, designations offer a convenient end-run around the normal democratic process. No public involvement is needed. No economic or environmental analysis is completed before designation. No congressional debate, approval, or compromise is required.

Maybe Americans are starting to catch on. As President Biden considers creating a Dolores National Monument in Colorado, a recent survey found the local residents largely oppose it. Said Mesa County Commissioner Cody Davis about the poll:

“I was surprised about how galvanized people are, I thought that last slide was telling in that most people prefer some form of conservation, but more people — 70% plus — preferred something other than a national monument.”

The problem with national monuments