A Monumental Challenge to the Establishment of More National Parks

By Andy Kerr

On January 16, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation to establish Pinnacles National Monument in California. TR’s successors Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover (all Republicans), and Franklin Roosevelt (a Democrat, but a relative of TR who expanded Pinnacles twice) all expanded Pinnacles National Monument (Table 1) by using the authority granted to the president under the National Monuments Act of 1906. Exactly 105.1 years later, Congress converted Pinnacles National Monument to Pinnacles National Park, at the same time increasing its size by 20 percent over the seven accumulated presidential national monument proclamations.

While the National Park System, administered by the National Park Service, totals 80.7 million acres, only 50.7 million acres are full-fledged national parks. The system contains twenty other categories of units, from international historic sites to parkways—and including many national monuments (other national monuments are administered by the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management), for a total of 401 units.
 

Fifty-Nine National Parks

Pinnacles is the nation’s fifty-ninth full-fledged national park. Twenty-five of our fifty-nine national parks, totaling 39.6 million acres, were first seeded by the establishment of a presidentially proclaimed national monument. Fourteen of these monumental twenty-five were established from more than one national monument proclamation, in that national monuments were expanded by later presidents.

(A sort of twenty-sixth national monument–driven national park is Denali National Park, which is the reverse case. The national park was established by Congress in 1917. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter enveloped the congressionally designated park with a presidentially proclaimed national monument. In 1980, Congress added Denali National Monument to Denali National Park.)

Most of the acreage of national-monuments-turned-national-parks is attributable to President Carter’s visionary use of the National Monuments Act of 1906 to establish seventeen national monuments in Alaska, totaling 55,975,000 acres, in 1978. Congress converted fifteen of those national monuments to national parks in 1980. One other became a national wildlife refuge and the remaining one is still a national monument administered by the Forest Service.

The average time between the presidential proclamation of a national monument and the congressional establishment of a national park for these twenty-five cases is thirty-two years, about a human generation. It’s also interesting to note that the twenty-five national parks are 43 million acres in size, while the fifty-nine national monument proclamations from which they sprung totaled only 10 million acres.
 

Congressional Shenanigans

A bill recently passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee to eliminate the ability for a president to proclaim marine national monuments. Another bill (H.R.3990) has passed out of committee do the same for onshore national monuments. Similar legislation (S.33) is awaiting action in the Senate. See my March 2017 post on such congressional shenanigans.

The elegance and brilliance of the National Monuments Act of 1906 is that it places the long-term national interest over short-term local interests. All of these bills would generally eliminate or hamstring the president’s ability to use the National Monuments Act of 1906, either by giving local government officials a veto over any proclamation or by making moot any such proclamation unless promptly ratified by Congress.

Here is a simple thought experiment to determine the potential harm Congress could do in revoking or hamstringing the authority it gave the president to proclaim national monuments: If the legislative language modifying the National Monuments Act of 1906 had been the language enacted into law by Congress in 1906, how many national monuments (and national parks) would we have today?

The answer is damn near zero. Most national monuments were presidentially proclaimed—at the time—over the objections of the state’s (or the territory’s) legislature or congressional delegation. Keep in mind that no national park has been established by Congress without having received the consent of the state’s two U.S. senators and usually the directly affected U.S. representative. In other words, give a locally controversial national monument some time, and what was locally controversial becomes universally sacrosanct. Most change comes at funerals.
 

America’s Sixtieth National Park?

America’s sixtieth national park may be Indiana Dunes. The current House of Representatives, not particularly known for conservation, unanimously passed a bill (H.R.1488) to “retitle” Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as Indiana Dunes National Park. Of course, it was merely a retitling and did not expand the protected acreage, but it was sponsored by the entire Indiana delegation to the House of Representatives. The national lakeshore was established by Congress in 1966 and expanded in 1976, 1980, 1986, and 1992.

The bill is awaiting action in the Senate, where a companion bill (S.599) has already been introduced by Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and is cosponsored by Senator Todd Young (R-IN). The troubling news for Indiana Dunes National Park is that the chief sponsor is a Democrat in a Republican-controlled Congress. Even worse, Donnelly is facing a tough reelection challenge in 2018 and the Senate leadership may not want to give Donnelly a victory that could help him during his reelection bid. Perhaps Young can prevail upon his Republican colleagues, but perhaps not, as Young might choose being in the majority over leaving his state a legacy of its first national park.

What’s your first choice for #61 (or #60)? Is it monumental?

Andy Kerr is the former Conservation Director of Oregon Wild and now runs the The Larch Company. You can find his Public Lands blog here.

Photo Credits: 
Some of the pinnacles in Pinnacles National Park, California. Source: Wikipedia