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I’ve struggled for days to write this post. But nothing I type seems remotely adequate.
Some drafts have been too argumentative. Or too wonky. Others have been downright angry. One was rather melancholy, a sad ode to losing the places you care most about. I’m stumped—there’s really no way to say all that needs to be said. I guess I should start with this simple sentence:
National Monuments are deeply personal to me.
Over the last two decades, I’ve visited most of the places that term has ever graced—from the very first to be designated, Devils Tower, to one of the last, Bears Ears. I’ve backpacked in National Monuments that have been expanded and recast as crown-jewel National Parks, and hiked in National Monuments that have lost their protected status entirely. I’ve camped in obscure national monuments you’ve never heard of, and navigated through crowds of tourists to gaze upon the most famous of vistas. I haven’t been to all of them—not quite yet—but I will. I’ve been inspired by too many to ever stop.
But this post really isn’t about any of those experiences.
Nor will this post argue policy, or point out the infuriating inaccuracies and bald-faced lies that we’ve heard from monument opponents. It won’t detail the troubled legality of Trump’s national monument review, or recount why the whole thing has been an utter sham, or explain the economic value of protected lands to rural communities. I won’t lament the short-sightedness of this administration or the lasting scars they can cause. I could refute for hours the arguments proffered by opponents, dazzle you with charts and maps, or spellbind you with the words of those inspired by these treasured places. I could stir your very soul with photographs and video.
Instead, I’ll share a few glimmers of what I saw while working on national monuments over the last 12 years—the personal side of it. The full tale is, as you’d imagine, far too long to recount here today, and so is the list of characters involved. This will be but a brief glimpse into that world.
When I see national monuments, I don’t just see amazing landscapes that protect our natural and cultural heritage. Because of my involvement over the years, I can’t help but see several layers of story deeper. I see the countless people that help make these places even more special than they already are—that make the national monument designation actually mean something.
I see a middle-age woman who fell in love with a single vista, and left her man and corporate job and happy life in the city in order to see that view every night. An unexpected community leader, she’s now involved in everything of note in her tiny gateway community, including personally financing the creation of a volunteer friends group she runs for the adjacent public lands she cares so much about.
I see a retired man who loves exploring, who spends countless weekends traipsing across wind-whipped plateaus in search of pottery sherds and rock art—making a hobby out of expanding our knowledge of the area while populating the database that’s studied by land managers and archaeologists.
I see a government bureaucrat who still remembers the first time he stepped foot in his favorite national monument—two decades before it became one—and couldn’t stop smiling at the scene before him. He endures the tedious parts of his job because of memories like that one. And that tedious work, even when I don’t agree with each of his decisions, brings the promise of the national monument closer to fruition.
I see a graduate student, lending her newfound knowledge and seemingly boundless energy to the board of directors of the national monument’s volunteer friends group. She stumbled into involvement with the group last year, and now spends her Tuesday nights in meetings and her treasured Saturdays—her only day off—coordinating various monitoring and outreach projects.
I see a shy man, who inherently avoids conflict and any remotely political discussion, sitting at his computer in the dim light of his living room. He’s carefully outlining a powerful guest editorial that will be published in the city’s newspaper later that week. Secretly terrified at taking such a public stand on a controversial issue, he pushes on because he believes in the cause at hand. He owes it to his two small grandchildren.
I see the young mother of a toddler, missing bathtime once again so she can sit in the dingy conference room to plot with her colleagues how to recruit more volunteers for next month’s restoration project. She’ll return home, put her daughter to sleep, and spend the next few hours making good on the volunteer tasks she took on during that meeting.
I see a small group of three volunteers practicing soliciting each other for a donation during a fundraising training session, trying to get comfortable with the act of asking for money for a big project they’re involved in. It feels awkward and uncomfortable and nerve-wracking and they repeatedly stumble through the words. They high five each other after finally pulling it off without faltering or nervously fidgeting with their hands.
I see a monument manager remaining steadfast in her willingness to make the right management decision for the land and the American public, even though doing so might sabotage the promotion she desperately wants and definitely deserves. The possible political repercussions are disconcerting, but she signs the document anyway.
I see a guy skipping dinner so he can make it a public comment meeting, wanting to weigh in with a few words about the invasive grass he sees climbing the desert slopes. A former botanist, he tells the audience that the grass could cause great harm to the ecosystem by carrying wildfire to hardy desert plants unequipped to recover from such an event. He’s willing to organize his friends and others to remove it, even by hand if necessary—an activity he’ll end up spearheading for the next seven years.
I see a bleary-eyed staffer from a conservation organization patiently assist, for the fifth time today, a volunteer struggling to understand the arcane intricacies of a thousand-page resource management plan. It’s not what either had in mind when they first got involved. It takes serious resolve and tenacity for them both, but it’s important to the places they each care about, so they persist.
I see a retired art teacher who now finds herself as treasurer for a friends group. She hates the actual work (she hasn’t balanced her own bank account in decades), but took the position because no one else would and the job needed to be done. She now spends her mornings reading blog posts on becoming a better nonprofit treasurer, a habit even her close family is surprised by.
This is just a quick sample of the stories and people involved in these efforts. Individually, they may not seem like extraordinary or especially noteworthy examples. They’re not. But collectively, it’s a truly impressive. People from all walks of life, personal interests and hobbies, skills and experience, religions and political tribes, all sacrificing and working hard to bring the words “national monument” to life. I’ve been up close and personal with these stories for more than a decade and I can’t overstate how inspiring they can be.
It’s not hard to review any of the national monuments of the last 20 years—or just about any of those ever designated for that matter—and see why they’re important places to protect. Unworldly landscapes. Critical wildlife habitat. Stunningly gorgeous scenery. Ancient artifacts and seemingly untouched pueblo ruins. We’ve been granted an amazing inheritance of public lands containing innumerable important resources.
But these places aren’t just scenic destinations you scroll through on your instagram feed. They’re deeply personal and important places to many who have toiled, sacrificed, and sweated to make them worthy additions to that revered inheritance we pass along to future generations. When you see these names on a map—when you visit them—remember that countless people worked to bring that place to you.
Thank you to all those wonderful people.