What new national monuments are likely under Biden?

New designations could help meet conservation goals set by the administration.

National monuments were a major political issue during Barack Obama’s presidency, given that he established more than any president before or after— 23, to be exact. When Donald Trump became president, however, he reduced the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante by almost half, removing around 1 million acres, and shrank Bears Ears National Monument to just 15% of its original size, or 228,000 acres. Trump also weakened protections on a monument on the East Coast, though he did establish a new one in Kentucky, Camp Nelson National Monument. So far, President Joe Biden has restored the three national monuments Trump reduced but has yet to establish any new monuments using the presidential powers in the 1906 Antiquities Act. That law is currently being challenged by the state of Utah, which filed suit in August against the Biden administration’s move to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. While the suit focuses on those two national monuments, its larger target is the act as a whole, despite years of legal precedent affirming a president’s executive ability to designate monuments.


Meanwhile, communities, organizations and tribal nations across the West have proposed three entirely new national monuments and one extension through legislation that is currently pending in Congress, though Biden could act sooner by using the Antiquities Act.

Current lands included in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in California. Legislation pending in Congress would add almost 4,000 acres to the monument and would allow for tribal co-stewardship.
Bob Wick/BLM

California — Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument Expansion

President Barack Obama established the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in 2015, protecting some 330,000 acres in the California Coast Range from Napa to Mendocino County. Now, legislation pending in Congress would add almost 4,000 acres to the monument, allow for tribal co-stewardship, and change the name of Walker Ridge, which is located in the new acreage, to Molok Luyuk — Patwin for “Condor Ridge.” The name change comes from the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a tribal nation that — along with over 50 organizations, including Latino Outdoors and the Native American Land Conservancy — supports the monument expansion.

Molok Luyuk contains unique habitat, in part because of its serpentine soils, which derive from an ancient sea floor, and it is home to unique plant species like the endemic McNab cypress. Since the national monument’s initial establishment, almost half of its existing acreage has been affected by wildfire. 

Colorado — Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument

Camp Hale sits at an elevation of 9,200 feet, nestled in a flat-bottom valley surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, not far from Leadville, Colorado. It was the site of the 10th Mountain Division training grounds, where U.S. Army soldiers were trained in mountain and winter warfare and cold-weather survival during World War II. After the war, many of the surviving veterans retained an interest in outdoor recreation and helped launch the modern outdoor industry.

The legislative effort to protect Camp Hale is part of the larger Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act introduced to U.S. Congress by Colorado’s Democratic delegation. The act would protect 400,000 acres of public lands in four different areas of Colorado, including Camp Hale, which would become the first-ever National Historic Landscape. So far, political gridlock in Congress has kept the act from advancing, prompting conservation groups, along with Colorado Democratic Senators Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper and Rep. Joe Neguse to urge Biden to employ the Antiquities Act. According to reports from the Washington Post, Biden may move to designate the monument this month. 

Nevada — Avi Kwa Ame National Monument

Located in the southern tip of Nevada, the proposed Avi Kwa Ame National Monument would protect 445,000 acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management from development and mining, and connect two other conservation areas in California’s Mojave National Preserve and Arizona’s Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Joshua trees, Gila monsters and the threatened desert tortoise all reside in the proposed monument, whose designation is supported by a coalition of local tribal organizations and the Fort Mojave Tribe as well as local towns like Searchlight, Nevada, and conservation groups that have worked for 20 years to protect the area.

Spirit Mountain, called Avi Kwa Ame by the Mojave Tribe, is located on the eastern boundary of recently proposed national monument near Laughlin, Nevada.

In 1999, the area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its significance to tribes in the region. The legislation introduced by Rep. Dana Titus, D-Nev., in February, does not specifically ask for tribal co-management of the monument, though it does guarantee that tribal members can have access to it for “traditional cultural purposes.”

Texas — Castner Range National Monument

The Castner Range is located in the eastern alluvial fans of the Franklin Mountains, a unique high-desert a short distance across the freeway from El Paso, Texas. The area’s proximity to El Paso is a primary reason for national monument designation, as it would protect a natural area that is easily accessible to the second-largest majority-Hispanic city in the U.S.

The proposed monument is home to fields of the endemic Mexican gold poppy, and its protection would also recognize the history of Fort Bliss. Several all-Black regiments — the Buffalo Soldiers — were garrisoned at Fort Bliss from 1866 to 1901, and the post served as a site for weapons training from World War II to the Vietnam War. Today, the Ysleta Pueblo and Mescalero Apache still use the area for cultural practices. The boundary is just five miles from Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, which is located across the border in New Mexico. President Obama designated the New Mexico monument using the Antiquities Act in 2014, and his action inspired the current effort to protect Castner, a place described by its supporters as “inextricably connected to a complicated human history of migration, conquest, colonization, and the sharing of culture, language, and natural resources.”

Organizations like the Center for American Progress have argued that establishing new national monuments should be a key part of the Biden administration’s 2021 “America the Beautiful” initiative, also known as the “30 by 30” conservation plan, which seeks to protect 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030. National monuments are chosen based on their cultural and ecological importance, which makes them one way for a president to acknowledge the histories of communities that have long been underrepresented. Biden himself seems to recognize this, as he said when he was restoring Bears Ears that national monuments are “part of our identity as a people.” As the 117th Congress winds down and the legislation for the four national monuments continues to stagnate in Congress, pressure will mount on Biden to take executive action to preserve these places before the end of his presidency.

Anna V. Smith is an associate editor for High Country News. She has placed in the Native American Journalists Association’s Native Media Awards in the category of Best Coverage of Native America three times. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.