9 Natural Treasures in the U.S. That Might Lose Their Protected Status

In April, President Trump signed an executive order that placed 27 national monuments (natural ones, not man-made) under review for potential changes to their protective status. These pristine areas have been protected by executive orders from presidents past under the 1906 Antiquities Act. President Theodore Roosevelt signed this legislation into law, which, since its establishment, has allowed Presidents to designate hundreds of millions of acres for protection. This includes swaths of precious marine areas, forests, wetlands, and stunning rock formations. The Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is currently touring and evaluating these national treasures. There is some hope that the importance and beauty of these awe-inspiring landscapes trumps politics for Zinke. Last year, he resigned from the Republican National Convention over a disagreement on the party’s policy of transferring public lands to state governments. On the other hand, the President is quoted as calling these protected areas “a massive federal land grab.” The current administration has made it clear that the environment is not a priority, epitomized by climate deniers leading both the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. The outcome of the review is expected to be announced July 9th, so it’s up to concerned citizens to make their voices heard. Below we’ve outlined nine of the most impressive of these 27 monuments.

1. Bears Ears, Utah

Bob Wick, BLM/Flickr

Bob Wick, BLM/Flickr

This pair of mesas was signed into protection at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. Located next to Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah, the protected area encompasses 1,351,849 acres of public land. The monument’s name is a translation from the local languages of Native Americans who have ancestral bonds to the region. Beyond its significance to several tribes, the expanse is home to gorgeous canyons, arches, and buttes. Bears Ears is one of the most threatened monuments because of interest from ranchers and oil companies wanting to exploit the land for profit. The Utah governor’s ambitions to reverse protections for Bear Ears sparked Patagonia and other outdoor goods companies to pull out of the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. It is estimated that the trade show generates $45 million in local revenue. There’s currently a petition to maintain Bears Ears’ status, which can be found here.

2. Grand Staircase-Escalante, Utah

Jeff Hollett/Flickr

Jeff Hollett/Flickr

Governor Herbert of Utah has also passed a resolution asking for the reduction of this exquisite monument. President Clinton designated 1.7 million acres in southern Utah to protect a series of stair-like plateaus that descend from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon. There are plenty of recreation areas for visitors to explore. Canyons, such as Brimstone and the humorously named Peekaboo Spooky are popular with hikers and backpackers. Devil’s Garden and Coyote Gulch exhibit surreal arches, deep canyons, and natural rock bridges -- notably the Metate Arch. The motivation for removing the monument’s protection is lucrative gains for mining companies wishing to extract coal from the state’s largest coal field. The extraction of this dirty energy would harm the unique ecology of this region, pump more carbon pollution into the atmosphere, and inhibit ground breaking paleontological research on numerous dinosaur fossils.

3. Katahdin Woods and Waters, Maine

Carol M. Highsmith/Wikimedia

Carol M. Highsmith/Wikimedia

The smallest of the monuments still packs a punch. Located in north central Maine, these 87,500 acres of forest, streams, and mountains are the finish line for ambitious hikers traversing the Appalachian Trail. For a leisurely introduction to Maine’s natural beauty, make a mini-road trip on the Katahdin Loop road, which extends 17 miles through the southern portion of Katahdin Woods. The road has numerous pull-offs for scenic views and trailheads to easily manageable hikes. To the north, outdoors enthusiasts can find excellent kayaking and canoeing on the Penobscot River. The Appalachian Trail ends in this section of the monument, passing picturesque waterfalls along the way. Another worthwhile hike is to the rapids of Orin Falls. Camping within the park is possible on a first come, first serve basis. Day trips are easily accomplished too, due to nearby access to route I-95.

4. Giant Sequoia, California

Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr

Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr

This patchwork of protected forest includes 33 groves of ancient sequoias in central California, totaling 328,000 acres. The habitat of these impressive trees is limited to a narrow swath of conifer forest along the western edges of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Giant Sequoia extended protection of these humbling giants to include regions outside of Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. The southern section is home to the Boole Tree, which, at 269 feet high, makes the list of the 10 largest Giant Sequoias. The colossal tree can be visited via the Boole Tree Loop, which navigates the former glory that was the Converse Basin Grove. The Boole Tree is the only remaining giant among huge stumps and new growth forest. To the north, visitors will find the General Grant Grove -- an isolated section of Kings Canyon National Park within Giant Sequoia. The main attraction is the General Grant Tree, which is the third largest known tree in the world and is over 1,500 years old. Due to the park’s designation as a national monument, camping is less restricted than in neighboring Sequoia National Park. That being said, make sure to leave no trace behind and set camp away from any water sources. Dogs are also allowed on the trails, here, while they’re prohibited in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. If Giant Sequoia loses its monument status, it opens the area to loggers and miners.

5. Gold Butte, Nevada

John Fowler/Flickr

John Fowler/Flickr

President Obama created Gold Butte near the end of his term to protect 296,940 acres in southeastern Nevada. Landscapes within the monument include desert, sandstone spires, and arches. Gold Butte has cultural significance as well, including ancient petroglyph drawings at the Falling Man Rock Art site and the ghost town of Gold Butte. Another incentive for the protective status is the establishment of a wildlife corridor for migratory animals, such as bighorn sheep and mountain lions. The rocky desert terrain also serves as the habitat for the endangered Mojave Desert tortoise and other reptile species. Visitors can access remote camping sites to admire the natural beauty in solitude. For those looking for some off-road adventure, you can seek out Hobgoblin’s Playground, which is also known as Little Finland. The stunning red rock formations are more characteristic of Mars than Earth. Gold Butte lies a mere three-hour drive from Las Vegas, making for an excellent city-break from Sin City.  

6. San Gabriel Mountains, California

Don Graham/Flickr

Don Graham/Flickr

The San Gabriels received national monument status in 2014 from President Obama. This 346,000-acre inland range is crucial to the health and environment of millions of people living below in Los Angeles County. It provides thirty percent of the drinking water the urban sprawl of 15 million residents, as well as much-needed green space near the metropolis. Los Angeles natives and visitors alike can take advantage of hundreds of miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The Mount Wilson Observatory is located within the monument and can be visited on weekends from April through November. Many attractions within San Gabriel can be reached in under a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, but campsites at Crystal Lake allow visitors to extend their stay overnight to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the Pacific from 10,000 feet. In regard to the elevation, it is a quick climb from sea-level to 10,000 feet, so pack plenty of water to help acclimatize and prevent altitude sickness.

7. Rio Grande Del Norte, New Mexico

BLM/Flickr

BLM/Flickr

This stunningly diverse national monument includes cavernous river gorges, volcanic mountains, and grassy plains across 242,255 acres. The preservation of Rio Grande Del Norte’s ecosystem is crucial for many large mammals, such as cougars, bighorn sheep, elk, and bobcats. Their territory ranges from the plains up to the pine forested mountains, the tallest of which is over 10,000 feet. Large groups of migratory birds also travel through the region, including sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, and hummingbirds. The monument has plenty to offer humans, too. The Rio Grande Gorge has excellent rafting, and there are a number of campsites nearby. It’s worth roughing it in a tent to take in the beauty of these volcanic fields, mountains, and plains. Taos, New Mexico, known for its art community and skiing, makes a great base for exploring Rio Grande Del Norte.

8. Papahanaumokuakea Marine, Hawaii

NOAA/PIFSC/HMSRP/Flickr

NOAA/PIFSC/HMSRP/Flickr

President Bush established the initial protected area, which was then largely expanded by President Obama in 2016 to encompass 583,000 square miles, making it the largest protected area on Earth. This stretch of the Pacific, located northwest of Hawaii, is home to 7,000 species of marine animals and seabirds -- one-fourth of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. One such adorable creature is the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, which depends on the pristine coral atolls for its survival. Scuba diving within the national monument is limited to research and education purposes, but the public can take a virtual dive at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo, Hawaii.  

9. Sonoran Desert, Arizona

BLM/Flickr

BLM/Flickr

These 487,000 acres of desert were given national monument status by President Clinton in 2001. Located in southern Arizona, the site incorporates saguaro cactus forests and three scenic mountain ranges -- the Table Top Mountains, Sand Tank, and Maricopa. The Sonoran Desert is touted as the most biologically diverse desert in North America. The monument is rather sparse in terms of facilities, but there are excellent hiking and camping opportunities for those willing to rough it a bit. A hike up Table Top Mountain is worth the 2,000-foot climb on the 3.5-mile one-way trail. The top is flat, as its name suggests, and it grants panoramic views of the desert below. Basic camping sites are available near the trailhead parking. Another excellent hiking route is the Lava Flow Trail, which crosses the western mountain slopes. Hikers will encounter basalt and lava rock formations. More trails can be found in the northern section of the monument through the Maricopa Mountains, notably the Ana National Historic Trail. The monument can easily be visited by one- to two-hour drive from Phoenix or Tucson.

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