National Monuments: A Century of Protection

By Forum Online posted 10-23-2012 18:03


 Secretary Salazar speaking at the establishment of the César E. Chávez National Monument. Credit: Tami A. Heilemann-Office of Communications, Department of the Interior

On October 8, President Obama announced the establishment of the César E. Chávez National Monument. Located in Keene, Calif., the property is known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz (Our Lady Queen of Peace), or La Paz. According to a White House Press release, the La Paz property is recognized worldwide for its historic link to civil rights icon César Estrada Chávez and the farm worker movement. The site served as the national headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) as well as the home and workplace of César Chávez and his family from the early 1970s until Chávez’ death in 1993. His grave site is located on the property and will be part of the monument.

The Chávez site joins an ever-expanding list of sites that reveal incredibly diverse stories about our country—its geography, early civilizations, maritime wonders, travel routes, natural resources, historical events, and cultures—stories that span thousands of years and help us understand the vast natural world and cultural history that we share as Americans.

The protection offered by National Monument status is one of the earliest tools available to preservationists seeking help for historic sites. In 1906, Congress passed a visionary law called the Antiquities Act, which allowed the president to designate and protect federally owned landmarks and sites of historic, cultural, and scientific interest by proclaiming them National Monuments. President Theodore Roosevelt immediately established four National Monuments: Devils Tower in Wyoming, El Morro in New Mexico, and the Petrified Forest and Montezuma Castle in Arizona. During his administration, Roosevelt created a total of 18 National Monuments.

Since then, American presidents have created 132 monuments in 26 states and territories, including the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Minor Outlying Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Monuments can be created out of any kind of federal lands including lands owned by the Department of Defense, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and the General Services Administration. In some cases, the land is donated to the government to facilitate the designation. In the case of the Chávez site, for example, the National Chávez Center offered to donate certain properties at La Paz to the federal government for the purposes of establishing a national monument to commemorate César E. Chávez and the farm worker movement.

National Monuments can also be designated by Congress. In 2009, for example, as part of a larger public lands act, Congress designated Prehistoric Trackways in New Mexico as a National Monument. National Monuments can be “upgraded” to National Parks, and only Congress has the power to do this. Monuments that have been upgraded to National Parks include Chaco Canyon in the Southwest, Acadia in Maine, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in  Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

It often takes years of behind-the-scenes work to get a National Monument designated. Denise Ryan, manager of the National Trust’s Public Lands Project, notes that it is important to get as many people involved as possible in the advocacy effort to get a site designated. In the case of Chimney Rock National Monument, the National Trust engaged a diverse coalition of people and organizations, including a bipartisan group of local and statewide elected officials, Puebloan and tribal leaders, business owners, and private citizens to advocate for the site’s long-term protection.

 Secretary Salazar with Dolores Huerta, Founder of the United Farm Workers. Credit: Tami A. Heilemann-Office of Communications, Department of the Interior
After the celebration ceremonies and official proclamations are over, work still remains. The presidential proclamation that designates a site lays out particulars of why a site has been protected, but a management plan must then be developed to define how this will be accomplished. The federal agency in charge of the site has roughly three years to create a management plan with input from the public.

While National Monuments may be right up there with apple pie and Independence Day, there is sometimes opposition to the designation. This usually arises in the case of large land areas in the West. Opponents sometimes refer to designation as a “land grab” and protest what they perceive as unfair restrictions on the use of the property. These concerns are often unfounded, since the site remains government property and most existing uses still continue.

Benefits of designation include increased federal funding and resources to sites and surrounding areas, allowing for for higher quality visitor facilities, more interpretation, better public education, and improved site stabilization. For example, the National Park Service has plans to add more visitor amenities, such as interpretive and educational programs, to César E. Chávez National Monument in the coming years.

What is the next monument in the making? One possibility is the Harriet Tubman site in Maryland.  In July, Governor Martin O’Malley, Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, and Congressman Andy Harris requested the establishment of a National Monument to recognize the tremendous contributions of Harriet Tubman and preserve the unique landscape associated with her life on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the Underground Railroad.

As the National Monuments program continues to expand, this listing and others still in the works will help Americans better understand and appreciate our shared American story.

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