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Know the West

How many more monuments will Obama create?

The recent designation for Browns Canyon has conservation groups ready for more.


On Feb. 19, President Obama invoked the Antiquities Act, naming his 16th national monument: Browns Canyon. The 22,000 acres of rugged granite cliffs in central Colorado boasts a long list of natural resources with 10,000-year-old archeological sites, high biodiversity due to the canyon's mid-elevation slopes, iconic wildlife species including bighorn sheep and golden eagles, and a unique geology at the northern end of the Rio Grande Rift System. The Arkansas River, which flows through the canyon, is also one of the most popular rafting destinations in the country, bringing in over $60 million to the region in 2014.

A coalition of local supporters ultimately swayed Obama to take action, nearly four decades after the area was first studied for potential wilderness designation. After several legislative attempts failed to bring greater protections to the area, 2014 proved a turning point for the canyon. Local rafting companies, conservation groups and local officials—including the mayors of the nearby towns of Buena Vista and Salida—called directly on the president to designate the area a national monument. By the end of last year, then-Senator Mark Udall, D-Colo., Senator Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper had joined in the cause, publicly requesting the president to invoke the Antiquities Act, a mechanism that allows the executive branch to designate national monuments.

The new designation withdraws Browns Canyon from all future mineral lease sales and sets in place strict conservation priorities that supercede the multiple-use mandates by which the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management manage lands that don’t have special-status designations. Proponents of the designation had feared recently proposed mineral development and road building would hurt the area's wilderness quality, fish and game habitat and river recreation economy.

Browns Canyon National Monument, photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.
"They wanted to put a star on the map," said Meghan Kissell, a spokesperson for nonprofit Conservation Lands Foundation, who worked closely with local groups on the national monument effort.

Many conservationists in Western states see the Browns Canyon designation as an indication of Obama's willingness to declare new monuments. Here are a few of the communities hoping to put their own stars on the map during the remainder of Obama's 23 months in office (not surprisingly, almost all are on the list of 14 monuments proposed in 2010, in a "vision" document leaked from the Department of Interior):

  • A coalition of tribal groups, businesses, local governments, conservation groups and local residents in California are pushing to protect the little-known 360,000-acre Berryessa Snow Mountain region north of Napa. The area supports tule elk, black bears and mountain lions a short drive from San Francisco. On Feb. 5, Rep. Mike Thompson and Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation to designate the area. 
  • In northern Idaho, conservation groups are working to protect the nearly 600,000-acre roadless area of the Boulder-White Cloud. Monument proponents say designation will help manage the encroachment of off-highway vehicles and block future mining of molybdenum. In a recent op-ed in The Hill, former Idaho Rep. Larry LaRocco called for the area to be "national monument number 17."
  • The 200,000-acre Bodie Hills of central-eastern California provides habitat linkage between the Sierras and the Great Basin. Renewed interest in gold mining in the area has local groups like Friends of the Inyo working toward permanent protections.
  • A coalition, including a Navajo group called Utah Dine Bikeyah, is petitioning for national monument status for 1.9 million acres surrounding Cedar Mesa, collectively known as Bears Ears, in eastern Utah. (Another group, Friends of Cedar Mesa, hopes to protect it through an act of Congress instead, as a National Conservation Area.) The canyon-cut region contains important Navajo traditional sites and more than 100,000 archaeological sites, most of which are Ancestral Pueblo.

Alex Carr Johnson is a contributor to High Country News.