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NATIONAL PARKS: How do national monuments differ?

By March 29, 2017No Comments

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

President Theodore Roosevelt was the original maverick. When he saw a problem, he found a solution, even if he had to bend the rules a bit to create one.

As far back as 1906, this activist president was faced with a need to protect the immense volcanic plug called Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming. Characteristically forging his own path, he applied the new Antiquities Act in an unorthodox fashion to create America’s very first national monument. Before he was done, Roosevelt signed 18 national monuments into existence.

Congress had intended the Antiquities Act to protect “objects of historic and scientific interest.” In essence, it was meant to prohibit pot hunters from stripping ancient Native American sites of their treasures. Still, after over a century of precedent, Roosevelt’s creative application of the act has now become settled law, and its continued use is unlikely to be altered going forward.

Certainly not all such monuments come into being in this dramatic fashion. Many wind their way through a bureaucratic process that can take years.

Once a monument is established, it becomes a unit of the National Park Service. Some monuments are administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). No matter how they come into being or who administers them, national monuments do not have national park status, facilities or the number of visitors that frequent national parks.

Of the approximately 130 national monuments presently in existence, 30 have been established in this young century alone.

Curvy red sandstone in Devil's Garden, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Devil’s Curve at Devil’s Garden, Grand Staircase-Escalante © Jerry Ginsberg

Perhaps one of the best known national monuments and my personal favorite is Grand Staircase-Escalante in central Utah. This rugged 1.7-million-acre tract includes the spectacular former Escalante wilderness. Created by President Clinton with the use of the Antiquities Act, this monument protects its coal-rich lands from strip-mining.

The creation of national monuments is rarely without controversy. Grand Staircase-Escalante is no exception. While some ardent conservationists cheer the removal of such coal deposits from the national inventory of energy assets and remain unbending in their demands that we sharply reduce both the use and extraction of fossil fuels in general, the demands of a burgeoning population put pressures on natural resources that become impossible to resist.

USA, MD, Maryland, Baltimore, Ft. McHenry, McHenry, Historic Fort McHenry, birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner, national anthem of the United States.

Ft. McHenry © Jerry Ginsberg

As a nation, we need both the protection of wilderness and an ever increasing supply of energy. Whether to rope off the land or allow it to be in the pool for energy exploration is an issue on which people of good faith on all sides of this very contentious issue can disagree, discuss and debate in good faith. That would be the best case. It rarely happens that way.


Some of our national monuments exist to protect the pristine condition of magnificent natural areas such as the Cape Krusenstern coastline in northwestern Alaska and White Sands near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Others come into being to preserve irreplaceable historic artifacts and structures. Some of the very best of this group include the indomitable Fort McHenry in Baltimore and Petroglyph National Monument on the edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Two of our more spectacular and ruggedly scenic national monuments, Canyon de Chelly and Tsegi Canyon, are small tracts within the vast Navajo Nation in Arizona.

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly

National parks and most small national monuments provide roads, visitor centers and other facilities. (Exception: Most national parks in Alaska have no roads.) The larger and more pristine national monuments, however, are generally untrammeled wilderness with few, if any, roads and no lodging.

Remote Cape Krusenstern National Monument on Alaska'a northwestern coast juts into the Bering Sea.

Cape Krusenstern © Jerry Ginsberg

In sharp contrast to the norms of national monuments, a full-fledged national park is created solely by an act of Congress. With few exceptions, this is a much more arduous process often marked by substantial controversy and a snail-like journey through the federal bureaucracy.

The National Park Service has multiple criteria as qualifications for national park status. Basically, these boil down to being an area of singular (and presumably irreplaceable) scenic, habitat, ecosystem, cultural and/or historic value.

Once a proposal for the establishment of a national park is made, the process involves several types of studies and most likely a few hearings before congressional committees.

While most national parks are created from non-National Park Service lands, many have been upgraded from national monument status. Among this last and august group are Zion, Bryce Canyon, Petrified Forest, Olympic and, perhaps most notably, the mighty Grand Canyon.

Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He has photographed all of North America’s national parks with medium-format cameras and has been a National Park artist-in-residence. His photographic archive spans virtually all of North and South America. More of Jerry’s images can be seen at Email him at