Setting the Record Straight on BLM National Monuments

An internal Department of the Interior (DOI) document was leaked in mid-February naming the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa in Utah, among other landscapes in the West, as having the potential for national monument status.  To set the record straight, below are some frequently asked questions and answers about the designation of national monuments on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild lands.

Q:  Why does the DOI document not mention wilderness designation?  Isn’t wilderness designation the best way to protect these landscapes?

A:  Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the President alone has the authority to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments.”  However, under the Wilderness Act of 1964, the only way to designate wilderness is through a bill passed by Congress and then signed by the President.  Wilderness designation is the strongest protection afforded for public land under U.S. law, but the President alone does not have the authority to designate wilderness.  BLM wilderness-quality lands within a monument would still be eligible for wilderness designation by Congress.

Q:  I’ve heard that the designation of a national monument in Utah would constitute a “federal land grab.”  Isn’t most of the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa already federally owned land?

A:  Yes, the vast majority of the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa is already federally owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management.  Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the President would only be able to declare national monument status to lands already under ownership of the federal government.  Therefore, the only lands in the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa areas that would be part of potential national monuments are those that are already public land, unless private land owners were willing to sell their land to the federal government.  The term “federal land grab” is used to spread misinformation in this case.  

Q:  I’m worried that many of our national parks are being loved to death, and don’t want the same fate for the San Rafael Swell or Cedar Mesa.  Wouldn’t national monument designation put these landscapes under the National Park Service and therefore open them to more roads and development such as visitor centers and lodging?

A:  National monument designation does not automatically place the monument under the National Park Service.  If you look at the example of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in Utah that was designated by President Clinton in 1996, it is still managed by the BLM and is still mostly backcountry.  In fact, much of the GSENM’s infrastructure, such as visitor centers, are outside the monument itself.  There are currently 16 national monuments managed by the BLM.  Although historically many national parks started out as national monuments, there is no rule that a national monument will someday become a national park.

Q:  How would national monument designation protect landscapes more than the status quo?

A:  National monument status requires that a management plan be developed in order to adequately protect the historic and/or scientific features that the monument was designated to protect.  Also, a national monument would receive authorized funding from Congress as it is part of the National Landscape Conservation System, the federal system of BLM special places.  Additionally, a national monument would be managed by dedicated staff working to specifically preserve what is special about the monument.

Q:  How would a BLM national monument be different than a national park?  How would it be different than wilderness?

A:  A BLM national monument would, of course, be managed by the BLM instead of the National Park Service.   Thus, activities that are allowed on some BLM land – such as hunting, dispersed camping and grazing – that are not allowed in most national parks may be allowed in the monument, depending on the management plan.  Wilderness is a designation that can be included inside a monument or park, for example, and just has stricter protections than the rest of the monument or park.  For example, off-road vehicles would not be allowed in wilderness areas, but could be allowed in other parts of a park, monument, etc. that also contains wilderness areas.  Wilderness areas also do not contain roads or human infrastructure such as visitor centers, which may be in place in other parts of a monument, park, etc. that also contain wilderness.  (As an aside – wilderness can be designated by itself as well; wilderness areas do not have to be inside a park, monument, etc.)

Q:  How would national monument designation affect America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act

A:  It is probable that a national monument designation would not affect America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act in any significant way.  SUWA believes that the best way to protect both the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa is through wilderness designation, and we will continue to work toward that end.  After the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was designated, wilderness-quality lands within the monument remained in America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, and we would expect the same result if other national monuments were presidentially designated in Utah.

Q:  How would national monument designation affect existing Wilderness Study Areas(WSAs)?

A:  Existing WSAs would remain in place under a presidentially proclaimed national monument.