America s Monumental Heritage

Among the "crown jewels" of western public lands, the nation's new national monuments may be targeted for oil and gas development

  • Michael Satchell
  • Dec 01, 2001

DECISION POINT it is called, as sublimely scenic and richly historic a spot as any you will find along the great waterway of western exploration, the Missouri River. On June 2, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stood at this broad, sweeping curve, where the Marias River flows into the Missouri in north-central Montana, and found themselves facing the classic explorers' dilemma: Which way do we turn? Unsure of the main stem of the Missouri, the two split--Clark ascending the left branch, Lewis leading his party up the right fork until, he wrote, "we could perfectly satisfy ourselves of the one, which it would be most expedient for us to take on our main journey to the Pacific."

Visit this confluence in Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument today, and you'll happily discover how little things have changed. The grizzlies have long been driven away, but elk, pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep and bison (the buffalo albeit behind a fence) inhabit the region's rangelands and hills. Thick clumps of prickly pear cactus that plagued moccasin-clad members of the 1805 expedition still threaten to spike sandal-shod feet. White pelicans, blue herons and golden eagles soar over warm murky waters housing sauger, walleye, prehistoric paddlefish and endangered pallid sturgeon.

Gazing out from the monument's Decision Point overlook last summer, Jim McDermand, associate director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said, "This looks a whole lot like it did the first time Lewis and Clark saw it." A key player in the campaign to get Missouri Breaks designated a national monument, McDermand added that "it's important to maintain this heritage."

Protecting an unspoiled 150-mile stretch of river along the Lewis and Clark National Heritage Trail, Missouri Breaks is just one of 21 national monuments created or expanded on federal public lands by President Clinton, 6 of them, including the breaks, during his last month in office. To bypass vehement opposition by western congressional conservatives and public land opponents, particularly ranchers, Clinton designated the protected areas by presidential fiat, a power provided by the 1906 Antiquities Act. Though every former president since Theodore Roosevelt--with the exceptions of Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush--has used this law to create new monuments, Clinton set aside more than any of the others--over three million acres of public lands holding outstanding scenic, wildlife, historic and archaeological values.

But the safeguards provided by national monument status are jeopardized today by the Bush administration's aggressive push for new energy sources. With intense controversy surrounding drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the administration is also eyeing energy sources on federal lands in the lower 48 states--particularly the Clinton monuments that remain unpopular among western conservatives.

At greatest risk are six new monuments that have been identified by the U.S. Geological Survey as having "moderate to high probability" of oil, gas or coal reserves. Montana's Missouri Breaks is one such threatened monument. The others are:

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Located in the Four-Corners region of southwestern Colorado near Mesa Verde National Park, this 164,000-acre protected area contains the nation's highest known density of archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings, villages, ceremonial sites, shrines, sacred springs, rock art and sweat lodges. More than 5,000 such sites have been recorded so far, with thousands more left to assess. Monument status means more federal employees will be available to monitor the area and protect it from illegal "pot hunters" who dig into archaeological sites to steal valuable artifacts.

Hanford Reach National Monument. Part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Hanford Nuclear Reservation in central Washington, this is the last free-flowing, nontidal stretch of the Upper Columbia River. The monument's 195,000 acres contain important Indian archaeological sites and straddle a 51-mile stretch of river that is critical spawning ground for chinook salmon. The reach is also rich in waterfowl--including mallards, teal, gadwall and American mergansers--along with California gulls, ring-billed gulls and great blue herons. Wintering bald eagles feast here on both dead birds and fish.

Carrizo Plain National Monument. A hundred miles east of Los Angeles, the 204,000-acre Carrizo Plain is a dramatic desert landscape popular with birders, hikers, hunters, campers and photographers. Its centerpiece is Soda Lake, a glistening pan of white salt and brackish water fringed by grassland and ringed by steep mountains that are bisected by the San Andreas fault. Winter draws thousands of sandhill cranes to the lake, and California condors--reintroduced nearby--are sometimes spotted. The monument is habitat for a host of threatened and endangered species, including the giant kangaroo rat, blunt-nosed snake, leopard lizard, San Joaquin antelope squirrel and San Joaquin kit fox.

California Coastal National Monument. This unusual monument protects the entire 840-mile stretch of California's coast, from the shoreline to 12 nautical miles out to sea. It includes all islands, rocks, exposed reefs and pinnacles above the high water mark, including the spectacular scenery off Big Sur. As burgeoning coastal development drives wildlife offshore, the monument's islands and other land forms provide nesting habitat for an estimated 200,000 breeding seabirds, including the threatened brown pelican and the endangered least tern. The monument is also an increasingly important haven for mammals such as the threatened southern sea otter and northern (Steller's) sea lion.

ROCKY REFUGE: California Coastal National Monument protects the state's entire 840-mile coast, from the shoreline to 12 nautical miles out to sea. Within this zone, the monument includes all islands, exposed beaches, pinnacles and rocks, including these sea stacks off Garrapata State Beach (above). As development destroys more and more onshore habitat, these land forms become increasingly important for breeding seabirds and marine mammals. 

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Clinton's first and biggest national monument, it protects 2,900 square miles of arid wilderness in southern Utah's spectacular red-rock canyon country. Grand Staircase features landscapes ranging from colorful badlands, sagebrush basins and water-carved, slick-rock canyons to remote ridges dotted with pinyon pine and juniper. In addition to the solitude and rugged beauty enjoyed by visitors, the monument provides habitat for 289 bird species, 91 mammal species, 35 reptile species and 20 fish species.

No less spectacular, Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument gives today's visitors a rare glimpse of what the Big Mo looked like to the first European explorers who laid eyes on it. When the Corps of Discovery embarked from St. Louis in their keel boat and two small pirogues on May 14, 1804, they struggled upstream on a meandering Missouri River braided by islands and sandbars, looped by oxbows and framed by swaths of virgin prairie, forest and wetland. The explorers marveled at vast herds of bison, elk and pronghorn as well as flocks of waterfowl and a three-mile-long carpet of floating white pelicans.

Today much of the lower Missouri has been dammed, leveed and channeled into a sterile, fast running, industrial barge canal. Stephen Ambrose, author of Undaunted Courage, the best-selling account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, has retraced by canoe and on foot the explorers' entire 2,500-mile Missouri River journey from St. Louis to the river's source at Three Forks, Montana. "Today's river is one third the size and three times as fast as the one Lewis and Clark explored," he grumbles. "It's a bloody disaster."

Yet the lyrical landscapes and abundant fauna that delighted and amazed those first explorers are preserved in Missouri Breaks monument, which supports 60 mammal species, 230 bird species, 20 reptile and amphibian species, and 49 fish species. Much of the grass-roots credit for saving this critical resource goes to a handful of Montana conservationists, among them McDermand and rancher Hugo Tureck. Appointed by then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, the two served as leaders of the Central Montana Resource Advisory Council to study the breaks and recommend a protection and management plan that was adopted virtually intact by the Clinton administration.

Though 90,000 acres of Missouri Breaks had been protected as a "wild and scenic river" since 1976, that designation covered little more than the river itself. Monument expansion added some 377,000 acres of federal land interspersed with another 90,000 acres of private land. Much of the new protected area is critical winter habitat for ungulates and encompasses spectacular scenery, including the fabled badlands or breaks.

Today small portions of both the river and the breaks are accessible by road, but the only way to experience the monument's full beauty and history is to explore it the way Lewis and Clark did nearly 200 years ago--on the water. For the first 55 miles or so, the river twists through gently undulating bench land, dotted with long abandoned homestead cabins. The Big Mo then swings south into the White Cliffs section, arguably the most scenic and spectacular portion of the entire 2,500-mile river. Here the bluffs rise up to 300 feet, the white sandstone sculpted into phantasmagoric shapes that compelled Lewis to pen this vivid description:

"The hills and river cliffs which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance . . . it seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never end. Water has trickled down the soft sand cliffs and worn it into a thousand grotesque figures [which] represent elegant ranges of lofty freestone buildings, having their parapets well stocked with statuary. We see the remains or ruins . . . some columns standing and almost entire with their pedestals and capitals . . . some lying prostrate and broken in the form of vast pyramids of conic structure. So perfect indeed are those walls that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry."

From White Cliffs, the river flows into the badlands and then into Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which supports one of Montana's biggest elk herds. Wind and water erosion of the soft sandstones and shales of an ancient seabed, aided by temperature extremes, have cut gulches, hollows and canyons known as coulees. Guidebooks carry boilerplate geological descriptions of the breaks, but Tureck describes the rugged terrain with far more passion and eloquence. "The breaks give you a sense of space you can find no place else--constantly changing, not rich in flora and fauna, brutal and harsh, but one of the softest places you'll ever see," muses the former college sociology professor turned farmer-cowboy.

But big changes may be in store for the breaks over the next few years. Fending off energy development and other potentially destructive uses favored by the administration will be the biggest challenge, especially with Montana Governor Judy Martz and some of the state's congressional delegation still hostile to the monument. Last August, a committee appointed by Martz voted to recommend to the U.S. Department of Interior that it reduce the size of Missouri Breaks to its original acreage of 90,000. Interior, meanwhile, which administers these protected areas, is considering shrinking the boundaries and assessing--read loosening--the rules on permitted activities in all 21 new monuments.

According to Charles Wilkinson, who teaches federal public land law at the University of Colorado–Boulder, monuments are more vulnerable than are national parks because, although they are popular with the public, they're also perceived by some people as having lower status. "This administration seems eager to push the envelope on [loosening] monument protections," says Wilkinson.

Other experts fret that allowing oil drilling and other destructive activities on monument lands might make all protected areas more vulnerable. "What's worrisome and dangerous about the Bush administration is the attempt to roll back, diminish and erode legal protections," says historian William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "If he can set a precedent in the monuments . . . who can say what will happen to wilderness areas and national parks?" Indeed, outside of monuments, potential new gas fields, oil patches and coal mines are also found in buffer areas protecting such crown jewel national parks as Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier. Threatened wildlands include the 100-mile-long Rocky Mountain Front in northwestern Montana, Wyoming's Red Desert and Colorado's White River National Forest.

BEYOND HISTORY, abundant wildlife and spectacular scenery, national monuments house oil, gas and coal reserves that have caught the eye of the Bush administration as it searches for new energy sources. At greatest risk are six new monuments, including Grande Staircase-Escalante (above).

Energy development could have multiple negative effects on these protected areas, from polluting water, soil and air to damaging wildlife habitat and destroying views and a visitor's experience of solitude. Each of the at-risk monuments offers a different draw. Gas is the main resource at Washington's Hanford Reach; Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients contains both oil and gas; and Missouri Breaks already has several active gas wells within its boundaries. (The proclamation that created the monument allowed existing gas development to continue and honored existing oil and gas leases, which cover an additional 15 percent of the monument's territory.)

But the big energy prize lies beneath the largest of the six: Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante, which likely holds 30 billion tons of low-sulfur, high-energy coal along with some deposits of coal-bed methane gas and possibly oil--an energy lode potentially worth tens of billions of dollars. Clinton's 1996 monument designation blocked plans to strip-mine the coal. An incensed Utah Senator Orrin Hatch called the president's action "the mother of all land grabs," and some Utah politicians and land-use conservatives have chafed ever since. Now they finally see an opportunity to exploit the buried riches.

Utah Republican Representative James Hansen, chairman of the House Resources Committee and congressional point man for the Bush energy exploration plan, wants to reduce the size of the monument drastically and start digging. "You could easily shrink Grand Staircase [by] two thirds: Unless you like sagebrush, bugs and rattlesnakes, it's pretty worthless," says Hansen.

With a mind-set like that, the same could be said for millions more acres of scenic, historic and wildlife-rich landscapes protected as national monuments--including Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, a stretch of remote badlands and muddy river, economically worthless as a protected area but invaluable by any other measure. Says Tureck, a man with a mind-set decidedly different from Hansen's, Missouri Breaks "is convoluted, serpentine, twisted and gnarly. This place is hostile to humans, and forever may it remain so."

NWF Priority 
Monitoring Monument Threats

To help protect the integrity of the nation's newly designated national monuments, the National Wildlife Federation is actively monitoring legislation that could include provisions to open up the areas to oil and gas development, as well as measures that would decrease the authority of future presidents to use the Antiquities Act to safeguard special treasures. For more information, see

Michael Satchell is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report in Washington, D.C.

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