What National Monuments Mean for Climbing

It is difficult to imagine the American climbing scene minus National Monuments. Teddy Roosevelt established Devils Tower in 1906, and since then, several iconic climbing areas such as Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Pinnacles, Joshua Tree, and Gates of the Arctic have been protected as presidential National Monuments. (Some of these areas have since been re-designated as National Parks by Congress.) President Barack Obama has created or expanded 22 National Monuments during his term—the most of any president, with over 2 million acres of public land protected.

Devils Tower rock climbing demonstrates the importance of National Monuments
However, presidential National Monuments can be controversial and somewhat tricky for recreational access. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the President of the United States the executive authority to proclaim a National Monument, a tool that is often used when Congressional gridlock prevents federal lands from being protected and conserved. In the late 1800s, early conservationists recognized that America’s historic and cultural treasures were being stolen by looters and needed to be protected. The Antiquities Act was easily passed by Congress and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 in order to protect "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" as National Monuments.

Over the past century, many legislators (both state and federal) have criticized a President who chooses to proclaim a National Monument, on the basis that the designation may lack local support, prohibit mining and grazing, and weaken local economies. Despite criticisms, the Antiquities Act has been used by 16 presidents (both Democrat and Republican) to proclaim nearly 150 National Monuments, some of which have since changed designation or been abolished.

The Access Fund believes that climbing, and other forms of low-impact recreation, are appropriate ways for the public to experience National Monuments. But, it is important for climbers to understand what this designation means for climbing access. As President Obama wraps up his second term, we have seen, and expect to see more, new National Monument designations that could impact climbing. While Access Fund often supports the conservation goals of National Monument designations, we must acknowledge that National Monuments are created to protect antiquities, not climbing. In general, we prefer that Congress protect these areas through legislation, instead of the President using the Antiquities Act. Legislation is not bound by the confines of the Antiquities Act and can more easily protect recreation values. And since a law is passed after a majority of legislators agree, there is typically more support for legislated protection than for an executive order.

However, the Antiquities Act is an important conservation tool that we support. National Monument designations can be executed in a way that protect both antiquities and climbing, and the Access Fund policy team is working hard to ensure that the President understands the locations and values of climbing resources before making decisions. We have a much better chance of protecting climbing access if these recreational opportunities are acknowledged in the President’s National Monument proclamations. Having this acknowledgment is essential to ensuring that land management agencies develop plans that appropriately protect climbing opportunities, and it paves the way for our seat at the table when these plans are being developed.

Blog Comments

Thank you for this excellent overview of National Monument Designations. It's amazing to understand how these tools of conservation have come about over the last century and how their use has been utilized by Presidents in recent years.

Posted by: Carlos Buhler | March 15, 2016 at 08:18 AM

So let's think about this. You want to lobby for new legislation to to overturn use of The Antiquities Act, so the President can no longer declare a National Monument from National Real Estate Assets.

Sorry, guys, I absolutely disagree with this. The protection of Antiquities trumps recreation access. And you will come in to direct conflict with Native American site protection. This is under NAGPRA, look it up.

I have been a long-time climber, and will oppose your porition on this issue. You are being selfish and small-minded. You had better stand down on this effort.

-Jeff Wightman

Posted by: Jeff Wightman | March 16, 2016 at 09:04 AM

Jeff, thanks for your comment. You have misinterpreted our position. The Access Fund has never lobbied against the Antiquities Act--in fact, we have a long history of opposing legislation that limits the use of the Antiquities Act. Without it, many of America's best climbing areas, as well as historic and cultural treasures, would never have been protected for future generations. Just as President Obama has articulated many times, we advocate trying to protect these landscapes through legislation first. If Congress cannot provide appropriate protections, we are grateful that the Antiquities Act often can.

Posted by: Access Fund | March 16, 2016 at 10:39 AM

I have to agree with Jeff, the AF position in the brief is convoluted and to the average person reads as he concludes. Your clarification is much more clearly stated, please consider rewriting the article to state more concisely what AF's ultimate position is.
Also, I am not sure that climbing activities can co-exist within National Monuments (much less wilderness areas) without a far amount of oversight. I know individuals who willfully ignore the voluntary ban in Devil's Tower. I have picked up much trash and seen much vegetative and landscape degradation from climbers; from the "trivial" excess/residual chalking; to left behind rope end tags to spider trail creation and trampling of vegetation and trundling of rocks to "trail building" with rocks. We need to protect climbing areas from climbers who don't share the ethics of the 20% of the climbers who care and steward climbing areas conscientiously.

Posted by: Laurel Arndt | July 18, 2016 at 12:49 PM

Join The Conversation