More than one and a half million acres of wildlands and historical sites in the United States were recently protected when President Biden named five new national monuments. With these 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.
The five newest U.S. national monuments are:
- Camp Hale National Monument in Colorado
- Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada
- Castner Range National Monument in Texas
- Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, which consists of sites in Illinois and Mississippi
- Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument in Arizona
“Our national wonders are literally the envy of the world,” Biden said in a speech at a White House summit on conservation action on March 21, when he announced the Avi Kwa Ame and Castner Range monuments. “They’ve always been and always will be central to our heritage as a people and essential to our identity as a nation.” In that speech, he said that by granting the protections, the United States 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 more than 400 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, an organization 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 nation must conserve an additional area roughly the size of Alaska or more than twice the size of Texas.
It’s an ambitious conservation goal—one that will likely require multiple avenues to reach it. 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 toward 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 rule-making 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 USA would still need to set aside new national park land to reach the 30 percent goal.
“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 nonprofit 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 5 newest U.S. national monuments
Camp Hale National Monument in Colorado
The first national monument Biden designated during his presidency was Camp Hale, near Vail, Colorado, in October 2022. The 53,804-acre Camp Hale earned the title due to its significance to the U.S. military and the ski industry, as troops were trained in skiing, mountaineering, and winter survival here in the 1940s. Many of them would go on to become 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.
Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada
In southern Nevada, meanwhile, the new Avi Kwa Ame National Monument covers 506,814 acres of Mojave Desert landscape, including 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 U.S. national monument created to conserve Indigenous history. The first was Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which Biden restored the boundaries to (along with Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, also in Utah) in 2021. The two parks had been diminished by former President Donald Trump during his term.
“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 of Avi Kwa Ame 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 date back millennia. It also creates a larger animal corridor for desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, Arizona toads, mule deer, and Gila monster lizards, as the monument links with other national monuments and conservation areas across the region.
“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.
Castner Range National Monument in Texas
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 enjoy the outdoors. The new national monument first needs to be cleaned of the thousands of rounds of live bullets scattered around the site from its 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 Janaé 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.”
Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Mississippi and Illinois
This July 25, on what would have been the 82nd birthday of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Mississippi after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in 1955, three sites central to his and his mother’s stories became the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument. The three sites include the waterway where Till’s body was found, the Mississippi courthouse where his murderers were acquitted, and the Chicago church where Till’s funeral took place.
During an event at the White House to sign the proclamation, Biden noted that the national monument is an important way for the United States to acknowledge the “truth and full history of our nation.”
“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know. We have to learn what we should know,” Biden said, adding, “Today . . . we add another chapter in the story of remembrance and healing.”
Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument in Arizona
And on August 8, Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni in Arizona became the newest national monument (and the third to conserve Indigenous history). The nearly 1 million–acre area protects more than 3,000 culturally important Indigenous sites, including Gray Mountain (called Dzilbeeh by the Navajo), which is part of ceremonial stories and rituals, and Red Butte (called Wii’i Gdwiisa by the Havasupai), an area believed to be the sacred birthplace of their people.
“This new national monument is home to critical natural and cultural resources, and numerous tribes maintain cultural connections to these ancestral lands,” a Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks spokesperson told AFAR, adding that the designation “will provide visitors with continued access to outdoor recreation opportunities, protect cultural and archaeological areas, and help ensure the safety of numerous threatened, endangered, and rare species that call this area home.”
In a statement, Biden said the designation “supports tribally led conservation efforts and helps address injustices of the past, including when Tribes were forcibly removed from lands that later became Grand Canyon National Park.”
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.
But there’s one protection 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 historical areas (such as the Statue of Liberty in 1924 by President Coolidge) as national monuments.
Since President Theodore Roosevelt designated the first national monument (Devil’s Tower in Wyoming), 243 other monuments have been named by presidents. (President Obama dedicated the most at 34.) Because it’s a faster process, various communities are pursuing the monuments route to see their land protected. Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni, for instance, became a national monument contender after members of the Havasupai, Hopi, and Hualapai tribes, as well as Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva and Senator Kyrsten Sinema started pushing for it in early 2023.
Several of the proposed national monument initiatives are meant to recognize and protect Black and Indigenous history. For instance, the 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 organization’s establishment. 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 its 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.
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? Visits from the Biden administration to potential sites.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited the Tallahatchie Courthouse and Moung Bayou shortly before the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument was named. And 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.”