More than a half million acres of desert wildlands in the United States were recently protected when President Biden named two new national monuments: Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada and Castner Range National Monument in Texas.
With those designations, the United States is another step closer to accomplishing Biden’s America the Beautiful Initiative, a federal goal to conserve, connect, and restore 30 percent of U.S. land by 2030.
“Our national wonders are literally the envy of the world. They’ve always been and always will be central to our heritage as a people and essential to our identity as a nation,” Biden said in a speech at a White House summit on conservation action on March 21, when he announced the new monuments. In that same speech, he said that by granting the protections, the U.S. is safeguarding “the heart and the soul of our national pride. We’re protecting pieces of history, telling our story that will be told for generations upon generations to come.”
In 1872, when the United States established Yellowstone National Park, it became a leader in public land conservation efforts—Yellowstone was the first national park in the world. In the time since, the country has given 424 parcels of land protected status (including national parks, national monuments, national historic sites and parks, national preserves, national memorials, national battlefields, and national cemeteries, among several other categories of land that the National Park Service manages).
Still, according to Protected Planet, a company that tracks international progress toward achieving global biodiversity targets, the newest designations only bring the total protected land in the United States to just over 13 percent. To reach the 30 percent goal set out by Biden, the U.S. must conserve an area roughly the size of Alaska (or more than twice the size of Texas) in addition to what is already protected.
It’s an ambitious conservation goal—one that will likely require multiple avenues to reach. According to a Center for American Progress report, “conserving high-value BLM lands represents one of the most significant levers America has to reach its 2030 land conservation goal.” Roughly 10 percent of all U.S. land is overseen by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and about 13.6 percent of BLM land has the potential to count towards the 30 percent goal, as only that portion has measures in place at present to prevent extraction practices, such as mining and oil.
Jenny Rowland, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress, told AFAR that both the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service (which oversees many of the country’s old growth forests that are vital for storing carbon) have recently released draft rulemaking that “will increase conservation on these lands that don’t necessarily have a specific protected status. That will help prioritize conservation as one of their primary uses and that would feed into that 30 by 30 goal.”
But even if large swaths of those federal lands were conserved, the U.S. still wouldn’t quite reach the 30 percent goal. A chunk of the remaining 17 percent will need to come from new national park land.
“This is one of the most ambitious conservation agendas from any administration in the history of this country,” said Gaby Diaz, a communications manager for the Wilderness Society, a non-profit land conservation organization. “The short answer is yes, we’re going to see a lot more national park land in the coming years.”
Here’s what you need to know about the freshly minted monuments and which national park units could be next.
The two newest U.S. national monuments
What is now Avi Kwa Ame National Monument covers 506,814 acres of southern Nevada. Importantly, it includes Spirit Mountain (Avi Kwa Ame in Mojave), a nearly 6,000-foot peak considered sacred to 12 Indigenous groups who believe it is part of their creation story. It’s only the second national monument in the U.S. created to conserve Indigenous history (the first being Bears Ears National Monument in Utah).
“It’s a place of reverence, it’s a place of spirituality, it’s a place of healing, and now it will be recognized for its significance as a whole and will be preserved forever,” Biden said in his speech on March 21.
Within the boundary of Avi Kwa Ame National Monument are some of the United States’ oldest and biggest Joshua trees (including the third-largest Joshua Tree in the world, a 900-year-old specimen known as the Monument Tree) and petroglyphs that are thousands of years old. It also creates a larger animal corridor for desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, Arizona toads, mule deer, and Gila monster lizards, as the monument links with the Mojave National Preserve and the Castle Mountain National Monument in California, as well as the Sloan Canyon and Lake Mead national recreation areas in Arizona and Nevada. The area was Bureau of Land Management land before it received the new distinction.
“To the native people who point to Avi Kwa Ame as their spiritual birthplace, and every Nevadan who knows the value of our cherished public lands: Today is for you,″ Democratic Representative Dina Titus of Nevada, who sponsored a bill to protect the area, tweeted on March 21.
Meanwhile, on the far western edge of Texas, near El Paso, the new Castner Range National Monument now protects 6,672 acres. From the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, the mountain range served as a training facility for the Army at Fort Bliss during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Since the 1960s, the land has been managed by the military and was closed to the public.
The area, which borders Franklin Mountain State Park, will provide a larger swath of protected land to wildlife such as the checkered whiptail lizard, desert cottontail rabbit, and the Western desert tarantula. And it will create more opportunities for local communities to recreate out in nature—the new national monument first needs to be cleaned of the thousands of rounds of live bullets scattered around the site from the site’s military days.
“The designation of Castner Range National Monument is significant to the region and nation as it protects unique cultural, historical and ecological areas,” said Janae’ Reneaud Field, executive director of The Frontera Land Alliance, a nonprofit working to preserve wilderness in the Chihuahuan desert. “The area, when safe for entry, will provide the community access to a special place that showcases the Mexican Gold Poppy, Alluvial Fans, military history, and evidence of indigenous people’s ways of life with over 40 historic sites.”
The two new national monuments bring to three the number of national monuments President Biden has designated—Camp Hale, near Vail, Colorado, was given national monument status in October 2022 due to its significance to the U.S. military and the ski industry. The 53,804-acre Camp Hale was formerly a military site where troops were trained in skiing, mountaineering, and winter survival in the 1940s (many of whom became pioneers in the outdoor industry; veterans of Camp Hale include the founders of the National Outdoor Leadership School, the Wilderness Education Foundation, Nike, the National Ski Patrol, and Vail Ski Resort). In 2021, Biden also restored the boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, both in Utah, which had been diminished by former President Donald Trump.
What land could be protected next?
Protecting another 17 percent of all U.S. land won’t be easy—and the Biden administration has been vague about how exactly it plans to achieve that goal. The report outlining the American the Beautiful Initiative didn’t name any areas that could be contenders, though it did state that the report “is only the starting point on the path to fulfilling the conservation vision that President Biden has outlined. Where this path leads over the next decade will be determined not by our agencies but by the ideas and leadership of local communities.”
Already, various communities have put forth ideas for new national park units, which would help the U.S. get closer to the 30 percent goal.
In Georgia, for example, the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative is advocating for Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park to become a full-fledged national park, which would add an extra 50,000-plus acres of protected land to the current total. However, national parks are harder to name as they require an extensive series of studies that examine the “criteria for national significance, suitability, and feasibility” and a vote from Congress. While Ocmulgee Mounds has wide bipartisan support, Congress still needs to schedule a vote (it’s expected to become the United States’ 64th and newest national park at some point in 2023).
There’s one protection though that presidents can designate unilaterally. Since President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration first passed the Antiquities Act in 1906 (which allows the President to proclaim national monuments to protect nationally significant land), 18 presidents have used their authority to grant unique natural landscapes (like the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, designated by President Clinton in 2001 and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, designated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906) and historical areas (such as The Statue of Liberty in 1937 and Mount Rushmore in 1933, both by President Coolidge) as national monuments. Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated the first national monument (Devil’s Tower), 241 other monuments have been named by presidents (President Obama having dedicating the most at 34). Because it’s a faster process, various communities are pursuing the monuments route to see their land protected.
Several of the proposed national monument initiatives are meant to recognize and protect Black and Indigenous history. For instance, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been calling on the Biden administration to protect the site of the Springfield Race Riot in Illinois, an event that led to the establishment of the NAACP. Similarly, the City of Tulsa is advocating for a national monument designation in the Greenwood district, which in 1921 was a predominantly Black community that was destroyed when a white mob killed hundreds of Black Americans in an event known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Another proposal, put forward by the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, would designate three million acres of public land in Nevada (near the Tribe’s reservation) to shelter the Tribe’s ancestral lands, burial grounds, and other Tribally-significant cultural sites. Numu Newe (which means “the people” in Paiute and Shoshone) would become the country’s largest national monument if designated. Last month, Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon became another national monument contender. The one million-acre site, found adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, is being pushed for by members of the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, as well as Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva and Senator Kysten Sinema. The national monument designation would recognize the tribes’ ties to the famed canyon (Baaj Nwaavjo means “where tribes roam” for the Havasupai Tribe, and I’tah Kukveni means “our footprints” for the Hopi Tribe).
Other prospects, such as the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, have been put forth on the premise of ecological conservation. The coalition is urging Biden to make Plum Island in New York a national monument to help protect the hundreds of rare or endangered bird species that live there.
There’s no official word as to exactly what protections Biden is considering next, however.
A possible clue? Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recently visited the Tallahatchie Courthouse and Moung Bayou, two places central to the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Mississippi after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in 1955, and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley (the former was where Till’s murderers were acquitted, the latter is the home of T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader who provided a safe haven for Till-Mobley during the trial). Both sites are part of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Park Campaign (as are other locations in Chicago and the Mississippi Delta). Before they were designated as national monuments, Haaland visited Castner Range and Avi Kwa Ame, which could hint at what’s next on Biden’s protections agenda.
“I think that’s a strong sign of support from the administration, like ‘Yes, we are putting our funding and our time into making sure [the Department of the Interior] gets out to that site and [is] seeing the spot for themselves,” said Diaz of the Wilderness Society. “I think that’s a good indication that something will happen.”