Diversifying National Monument Designation

From the ancient structures at Aztec Ruins in New Mexico to the swaths of sagebrush at Fossil Butte in Wyoming to the activist acreage of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad in Maryland, national monuments are some of the most fascinating naturally, culturally, and historically significant destinations in the U.S. 

These specially designated areas can be established one of two ways: Either by the president under the Antiquities Act or through Congress with legislation. National monument designations protect objects of historic or scientific interest, such as sacred land, historic buildings, statues and marine areas. Currently, there are 130 existing national monuments in the U.S., each managed by federal agencies. 

Because momentum for new designations is most often fueled by communities and advocacy groups who appeal to the government, their voices must be loud and persistent.

But historically, these important conversations around public lands have excluded critical perspectives. Almost exactly one year ago, eight diverse groups launched the Monumental SHIFT Coalition(Opens in a new window) with a goal of shifting that narrative. Their mission? To center ethnically and racially diverse communities in the creation, conception, funding, and stewardship of national monuments in the U.S. Through community-led advocacy, organizing, and storytelling, the coalition is shifting the traditional framework for creating national monuments.

A group of people posing inside a building with blue, black and yellow carpet and a blue and silver ceiling Image via Monumental SHIFT

“Today marks a prideful and historical moment for the first-of-its-kind national coalition led by racially and ethnically diverse conservation leaders,” said Ángel Peña, executive director of Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project. “Today, we bring our coalition into the national monument dialogue, and center communities who hold those lands most sacred. Today is a powerful day.”  

Maite Arce, president and CEO of Hispanic Access Foundation, added: “Protecting public lands through monument designation is timely and critical for communities. Monumental SHIFT is showing up to ensure the way we create, fund, and maintain national monuments represents and reflects the communities we belong to. Hispanic Access Foundation is proud to be a part of this growing movement to designate more monuments for us, by us, and with us.” 

The coalition members are: Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, Bennae Calac of Oono Po Strategies, Continental Divide Trail Coalition, HECHO, Hispanic Access Foundation, Rising Routes, National Religious Partnership for the Environment, National Parks Conservation Association and José G. Gonzalez.

Separately, these members work on their own campaigns centered on diversity in the conservation movement. But together over the last year, they have agreed upon criteria for endorsing national monument designation campaigns in order to urge President Joe Biden to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect lands and address the climate crisis.

A group of people posing outside on a deck Image via Monumental SHIFT

We’re looking at systems in place that are rooted in colonialism,” says Gabaccia Moreno, national monuments fellow at Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project. “How can we create space within those systems so the systems continuously diversify and become inclusive of all the communities that those systems are currently serving and have the potential to serve?” 

At this time, the coalition is endorsing two national monument campaigns(Opens in a new window) based on each project’s focus on community roots and inclusion of diverse leadership.

The first is the Castner Range(Opens in a new window), a majority-Latinx community in El Paso, Texas that’s currently part of Fort Bliss and owned by the U.S. Department of Defense. Every year between March and April, Mexican yellow poppies paint the mountains gold. The range’s historical significance dates back thousands of years to the Indigenous peoples, and local leaders have been fighting for protection for more than 50 years. Only in 2013 did they start down the national monument route. Conservation groups, local governments, business associations and diverse environmental leaders are calling on Biden to designate the range.

The next campaign is Avi Kwa Ame, the Mojave Tribe’s name for Spirit Mountain. The land is considered sacred by 10 Yuman-speaking tribes, as well as the Hopi and Chemehuevi Paiute, because of its tie to creation, cosmology, and well-being. Even though this peak is located within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Laughlin, Nevada, developers have tried to build wind farms and other industry projects in the region. But without national monument status, the land is still under threat. Leaders working to protect Avi Kwa Ame include a coalition of tribes, Boulder City and Las Vegas residents, the Nevada legislature, and conservation groups.

Ultimately, success is the protection of these sacred lands in a way that acknowledges the first peoples and their desires. Monument designation is one tool for achieving protections.

With the help of The Conservation Alliance’s Confluence Program grant, the Monumental SHIFT Coalition organized an advocacy trip to Washington D.C. and Annapolis, where members met with tribal leaders and attended in-person training and team-building opportunities. Moreno says that relationships and mutual agreements are at the core of the coalition, otherwise it’s challenging to work toward a common goal in a way that feels genuine and not transactional.

Next on the coalition’s to-do list, the Confluence Program funds—$50,000 in 2021 and $50,000 in 2022—are enabling the group to build a structure for expanding the coalition to include even more diverse leaders in the national monument conversation.

“Maybe there’s no room at the table so let’s create a table,” Moreno says. “The question is always, how do we continue to expand that table?”

In the meantime, she says, they’re also excited about seeing more community-led monuments campaigns arise and growing the coalition’s endorsement list. The members understand that meaningful initiatives take time and that advocacy is a long game.

“I know this is the first action towards a bigger goal that is really meant to support our future generations,” Moreno says. “We’re just here putting our little seeds on the ground and hoping that there’s enough roots and foundation for the work to continue.”

To learn more about Monumental SHIFT Coalition and stay up to date with their latest news, visit monumentalshift.org(Opens in a new window). You can also stay informed on Twitter(Opens in a new window) and Instagram(Opens in a new window).

The Conservation Alliance’s Confluence Program awards multi-year grants to grassroots groups led by Asian, Black, Brown, Hispanic, Indigenous, Latin American, and additional communities who identify as People of Color. To learn more about The Conservation Alliance, visit their website(Opens in a new window), keep up with their news(Opens in a new window), or encourage your employer to join(Opens in a new window). You can also give them a follow on Instagram(Opens in a new window) and LinkedIn(Opens in a new window), or donate to support their work(Opens in a new window).