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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

National Monuments: The Politics of Our Cherished Lands

Carrizo Plain National Monument

Courtesy Carrizo Plain Conservancy

It was 153 years ago this June 30 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, which granted to the State of California the stewardship of the “Yo-Semite Valley” and the “Mariposa Big Tree Grove” on “the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation; shall be inalienable for all time.”
Thus began our national dedication to preserving wilderness areas while simultaneously allowing for their public use. Though it struggled to meet these two seemingly contradictory objectives, the Yosemite Grant Act is often regarded as the birth of the national park idea, which was formalized in the establishment of the National Park Service 101 years ago on August 25, 1916.

Carleton Watkins, River View, Cathedral Rock, Yosemite, 1861

California Historical Society

On August 25, the summertime anniversaries of the Yosemite Grant Act and the National Park Service were tainted by the recommendations by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to downsize at least three national monuments, opening the way for potential development of the nation’s natural resources. Since Donald Trump’s executive order last April to “end another egregious abuse of federal power,” environmentalists and others have anxiously awaited the results of Secretary Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments designated under the 1906 Antiquities Act.
Six national monuments were included in Zinke’s review with the criteria that they were not barriers to economic growth and energy development and that local input had been sought in their designations: Berryessa Snow Mountain, Carrizo Plain, Giant Sequioa, Mojave Trails, San Gabriel Mountains, Sand to Snow National Monument.

Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California

Although none of the six have been singled out as yet, Californians cannot help but question the future of the state’s preserved lands. Among the most popular national monuments in the state—and nation—are Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego and Muir Woods in Marin County.

Muir Woods National Monument

Courtesy Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives

Priceless expressions of America’s heritage, national monuments are places of natural significance with historical cultural, and/or scientific interest: geological sites, marine sites, volcanic sites, historical sites, and sites associated with Native Americans. Although they are set aside for protection, and may only be created from land already owned by the federal government, re-designations, altered boundaries, and even eliminations of national monuments—by acts of Congress or the President—offer a disturbing perspective of uncertainties in the protection of our most cherished lands.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager


Emily Guerin, “California’s national monuments will not be eliminated but may be modified,” Environment and Science, KPCC, August 24, 2017;

National Parks Conservation Association, “Fact Sheet: What Is a National Monument?” May 3, 2017; monument?gclid=CjwKCAjwuITNB

Neeti Upadhye, Natalie Reneau, and Robin Stein, “The Debate over National Monuments,” New York Times, May 13, 2017
Yosemite Valley Grant Act, Senate Bill 203;


Learn more about CHS’s collection of Carleton Watkins mammoth plate photographs of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, 1861–1881:

Read our National Parks blog series, “A Mirror of Us”:

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