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NATIONAL MONUMENTS: A Powerful Conservation Tool

Browns Canyon Nat'l Monument

Browns Canyon National Monument

OUR COUNTRY HAS 117 NATIONAL MONUMENTS scattered across 30 states, from the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to the Misty Fjords in Alaska. National monuments have been established to protect coral reefs in American Samoa, Spanish forts in Florida and extinct volcanoes in New Mexico as well as landscape-scale, sportsmen-supported conservation efforts like the Missouri Breaks in Montana. The story of the national monuments, and of the Antiquities Act that made them possible, is part of a uniquely American saga, born in the tumult and ferment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Iowa’s Congressman John Fletcher Lacey and others helped birth the most powerful and effective conservation movement the world has ever seen. Few Americans are aware of how the fairly obscure law called the Antiquities Act has become the instrument for safeguarding dozens of America’s most important natural wonders and historical places – including exceptional fish and wildlife habitats that provide some of the best fishing and hunting in the country. There is no better way to understand what we have – and how best to use it and keep it – than to look at the history of how we got it. In the decades following the Civil War, explorations of the Desert Southwest revealed the staggering scale of abandoned civilizations in its hidden canyons. Some of the nation’s greatest archeological treasures were looted, with mass excavations of ruins and even the use of dynamite speeding the process. Artifacts were sold on the world market and exported to European museums. Ancient timbers and stones were hauled away to build sheds and corncribs. Illinois-born Edgar Lee Hewitt moved to New Mexico in 1891 at the age of 26 and studied under the brilliant archeologist Adolph Bandelier, who was working on the Pajarito Plateau ruins – and advocating for their protection. It was clear to Hewitt, Bandelier and many others that the pothunting and artifact craze could erase these civilizations before they were even partially understood. Determined to protect what was left, Hewitt guided Republican congressman John Fletcher Lacey of Iowa on an expedition through northern New Mexico to view the ruins and witness the destruction wrought by the pothunting trade. Congressman Lacey was a staunch conservative, a veteran of four years of combat in the Civil War, early member of the Boone and Crockett Club and one of America’s premier sportsman-conservationists. Today he is best known for the Lacey Act of 1900, which prohibits the interstate trade in illegally taken wildlife and fish and ended the devastating era of market hunting and fishing. Lacey, Hewitt, Roosevelt and other American conservationists of the time viewed the pillage of these archeological sites the same way they viewed the destruction of the wildlife, grassland, timber and water resources of their country – a direct threat to the nation’s future and its promise. This was a threat that must be addressed. Lacey said it best: “The immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.” Congress passed the Antiquities Act with little opposition, and President Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law on June 8, 1906. The law is unique in that it allows the president to proclaim parts of the public domain “protected,” bypassing Congress entirely. This authority is checked by public opinion and Congress’s power to abolish or modify a national monument, as well as establish monuments on its own. Over the next 110 years, 16 U.S. presidents – eight Republicans and eight Democrats – would use the Antiquities Act to create national monuments that range from Calvin Coolidge’s designation of the 320 square foot Father Millett Cross in Youngstown, New York, to the 140,000 square mile Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument designated by George W. Bush. Common to many monument designations is the president opting to use his authority when faced with congressional inaction. From the earliest uses of the Antiquities Act to some of the most recent, Congress had the first opportunity to act on initiatives intended to conserve critical public lands. If Congress does not take action, the president can use the Antiquities Act to try and accomplish the same goals. This approach – using the Antiquities Act to break congressional deadlock on conservation – continues to be utilized today.

Sportsmen's Approach


THE FORESIGHT OF early sportsmen-conservationists has allowed hunters and anglers to protect lands that otherwise would have been left vulnerable to development. Over the past decade, sportsmen and -women have advocated for and successfully convinced decision makers to support the creation of new national monuments in order to conserve high-quality fish and wildlife habitat and valuable hunting and fishing. Examples of new national monuments conceived and advanced by the sporting community include the Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico and Browns Canyon in Colorado. While some monuments have fueled social and political controversy, many have not. It’s important to remember that only existing federal public lands – not state or private property – can be considered for monument status, and these protected lands are more valuable for their scenery, watersheds, fish and wildlife or historical significance than for industrial development. Monument designation is one of the great American conservation achievements, a concrete statement made by a nation and a people that honors history and natural beauty – now and for generations to come. In a gridlocked Congress where public land conservation is not prioritized and, even when strong local and bipartisan support exists, often is held captive in unrelated political fights, the Antiquities Act offers a path forward, allowing citizens to ask their president to do what Congress has failed to accomplish. When used properly, the act has given us the opportunity to maintain some of the world’s best public hunting and fishing by conserving large and vitally important landscapes that could have been lost or diminished without it. But in order to be successful, national monuments need to be created in appropriate places, conceived locally from the ground up, enjoy meaningful stakeholder support and provide clear assurances for wildlife management and public access. The long-term vitality of the Antiquities Act depends on it. For national monument proposals to be supported by sportsmen, management of public lands within the monument must remain under a multiple-use agency, and wildlife management authority must be explicitly retained by the state fish and wildlife agency. Wherever this has been the case – such as the elk and mule deer habitat in the Missouri Breaks, which is managed by the BLM – some of the world’s best hunting and fishing has been conserved. For that to continue, wherever hunting and fishing take place on public lands proposed for new national monuments, sportsmen must actively engage in proposals before the designation occurs. The Antiquities Act, like any tool in the toolbox of a participatory democratic republic, only works when the citizens participate. Let’s drop the civics and history lesson now and look at some of the great success stories of the Antiquities Act – protected places so rich in scenic beauty and hunting and fishing opportunities that they are the envy of the world. We’ll stalk elk in the Missouri Breaks of Montana, hunt blacktails and fish the headwaters of the mighty Eel River in the Berryessa Snow Mountain and catch wild trout in Browns Canyon. It’s all part of 150 years of American conservation, the ongoing legacy of tough-minded visionaries like John Lacey, Theodore Roosevelt and others who followed in their footsteps and helped fulfill our destiny as a free people with plenty of room to carry on our traditions of fishing, hunting and simply being outside in wild country.


THE ARKANSAS RIVER is a 1,468-mile American icon, a frothing torrent born of snowmelt in the highest Colorado Rockies, a slow moving prairie artery through Kansas and Oklahoma, a broad-backed muddy workhorse of cypress swamps and big catfish where it finally pours into the Mississippi in Arkansas. The Arkansas is history and lifeblood and beauty, all in one mighty stream. No stretch of the Arkansas is more spectacular, or more loved, than the wild whitewater of Browns Canyon in Chaffee County, Colorado. Upwards of 300,000 Americans come here every year to experience some of the world’s most beautiful hellraising rapids in a rugged and wildlife-rich canyon of pink granite, the Sawatch Range towering to the west. This is not just rollercoaster, adrenaline junkie water. It’s a Gold Medal trout river, one of the best public trout fisheries in the world, with 20-inch browns mixed in with hard-muscled, coldwater rainbows. The big creeks that roar down from those monster peaks keep the river icy, while the arid, high country climate here means the sun shines an unbelievable average of 310 days per year. Coloradoans have worked for more than 40 years to permanently conserve and protect this part of the Arkansas and the public lands along and beyond the canyon. This is some of the most important wildlife country in the West because of the diverse terrain, from high alpine meadows and lakes at 10,000 feet down to winter range in the pinon-juniper hills along the river at a moderate 7,300 feet. The full quiver of Colorado big game is here: bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer, black bear and mountain lion, as well as a wealth of non-game species, migratory birds and unique native plants. Recreation on these lands and especially on the river pumps an estimated $55 million into central Colorado’s economy every year. On Feb. 19, 2015, 21,586 acres of this country were designated Browns Canyon National Monument. Widely supported by hunters and anglers, the monument consists of 9,750 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management and 11,836 acres of the San Isabel National Forest. The Arkansas River runs along and through the western edge of the monument, conserved for the American public to access and enjoy in perpetuity.


BILL DVORAK OWNS DVORAK RAFTING AND KAYAKING EXPEDITIONS and holds the first outfitter license ever issued by the state of Colorado. He and his wife Jaci have been guides on the upper Arkansas River since 1985, now joined in the family business by their son and daughter. Dvorak is also the president of the conservation group Friends of Browns Canyon and a leader in the effort to protect public lands and access to the area. “I remember one time we had 900 people show up at a public meeting,” said Dvorak, “and 95 percent of them wanted protection for Browns Canyon. But the politics just dragged on and on. Nobody could get any kind of conservation bill passed, even though this is the most popular whitewater river in Colora – do, and there is not one other protected area in the state that has this diversity of wildlife country. “I have hunted the west side of the Arkansas River, but mostly what I do here is fish. We have big browns, and the rainbows are coming back strong (after being reduced by whirling disease in the 1990s). You’ve got some of the best Class III whitewater anywhere [and] miles of Gold Medal fishing guaranteed by a voluntary flow program that keeps the river at 700 feet per second. There’s nothing like this anywhere, and Browns Canyon is the very heart of it.”