Colorado National Monument’s steep red-rock faces, jutting towers and panoramic views are iconic to western Colorado’s wild landscape. Thanks to federal protection established more than a century ago under the American Antiquities Act, the landscape will likely remain unchanged in perpetuity.
The monument predates creation of the National Park Service, it has the grandeur of a national park and it’s managed just like a national park. So why isn’t it one?
“Colorado National Monument is old and revered,” said Joan Anzelmo, former Colorado National Monument superintendent and current spokeswoman for Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. “It’s just an extraordinary place.
“Rim Rock Drive is also a magnificent historic road; you could never build it today. It’s a national destination.”
When Colorado National Monument was established more than a century ago, it was formed mainly to protect the area’s “erosional monoliths” spanning 32 miles between Grand Junction and Fruita, monument Superintendent Lisa Eckert said. It was one of the first national monuments formed in the country, before Park Service’s creation in 1916.
“Numerous presidents have used the Antiquities Act to preserve lands with unique resources,” Eckert said, noting 109 national monuments now formed across the country, most of which are managed by the Park Service. “Devils Tower was proclaimed the first national monument because of the geologic formation that is the tower. It’s in northeast Wyoming.”
And Washington Monument — a towering man-made obelisk located in our nation’s capital — is also managed by the Park Service for its place in history.
“It’s protected for the story of building it, the dedication and the legacy to President Washington,” Eckert said. “It’s really more than a statue; that’s what park rangers would be communicating.”
WHAT IS A NATIONAL MONUMENT?
According to Eckert, the main difference between a national monument and a national park (the most well-known Park Service designation) is the way it’s formed.
Since the Antiquities Act was passed in 1906, presidents have had the ability to protect “special and unique resources” of cultural, historic or scientific significance for future generations, Eckert said. This could mean protecting an area of archeological significance from looters, proclaiming a geologic formation due to scientific interest or even protecting a whole underwater ecosystem.
Former President G.W. Bush did just that in 2006, by proclaiming Papahānāumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean. It covers 140,000 square miles — Colorado National Monument is just under 20,000 acres — and was put in place to protect sea birds and coral reefs.
“The Antiquities Act has served the country so well,” Anzelmo said. “It allows a president to take fast action.”
That said, national monuments aren’t relegated to staying monuments if a national park upgrade receives both community and congressional support. Just last month, Colorado National Monument’s most recent push for national park status stagnated after years of back-and-forth conversation. Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Scott Tipton cited divided community opinion as why they shelved redesignation this year. An upgraded Park Service status needs congressional approval to take effect.
HOW ARE PARK SERVICE UNITS MANAGED?
While national monuments can be protected by presidential proclamation only, other national park units must be proclaimed by an act of Congress. Legislation helps direct land management going forward.
“Individual parks’ enabling legislations also come into play,” Eckert said. “For instance, a national preserve may allow oil and gas development (Big Thicket National Preserve) and so for that park unit, it is allowed even if not for other park units. If something isn’t differentiated in the individual legislation, then all sites are managed by the same federal laws and protections.”
Once land is put under the protection of the Park Service, often times there is no difference between management of a national park, a national monument, a national recreation area or even a national battlefield. National Park Service currently has more than 20 designations for federally protected land, which is specific to why it’s being preserved in the first place.
Case in point, Christine Landrum — acting superintendent at Colorado’s Curecanti National Recreation Area and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park — heads up both parks with one dual-use staff. Curecanti National Recreation Area provides a wide array of water-based recreation activities on a large body of water created by damming operations in the region. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was however formed to preserve Black Canyon, which was created by the Gunnison River. The expansive landscape — protected for both its natural and cultural resources — is primarily wilderness.
“The nature of the parks are different, but they are managed together,” Landrum said.
MEANING BEHIND DESIGNATIONS
With 401 Park Service units scattered across the United States, many of those don’t bear an official national park designation, yet all units are set aside for unique cultural and natural attributes.
“The nomenclature reflects intension for how we manage sites, but the same rules apply to all of them,” said James Doyle, National Park Service’s chief of communications and legislation.
“In our mind there is no functional difference; they are all referred to as parks by us.”
Landrum views the variety of Park Service designations as a way communicate the many reasons land should be protected for generations.
“Those different designations really do, to me, reflect the diversity of areas, size, and why they were set aside,” she explained.
Even so, Eckert acknowledged that so many “last names” for Park Service units “can be very confusing” for the vast majority of the global population unfamiliar with the system.
“In other countries, they don’t differentiate as we do,” and all national parks are named as such no matter the size and reason for preservation, she added.
Both Landrum and Eckert hope continued education and public outreach will better communicate the many facets of National Park Service units, not just the more well-known spots like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. And though Eckert said she will likely never visit every single Park Service site, she’s glad each one is preserved for future generations.
“It’s critical as a society to understand our past and take that knowledge into the future,” she said.
For more information about the National Park Service, visit www.nps.gov.