Posted by on November 25, 2022 8:45 am
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Public lands tell a story — let’s make sure it’s everyone’s

Last month, President Biden designated Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, the first new national monument of his administration.

In addition to protecting nearly 54,000 acres of wilderness landscapes in Colorado, the new national monument memorializes the men of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division who trained in its mountains and valleys to take on the Axis power in World War II and defend freedom from fascism. This honor is well-deserved.

In fact, designating Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument and reestablishing the borders of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments continues a trend of designating places that not only protect public lands and waters, but also honor the histories, legacies and cultures of the people who have stewarded these lands and call them home. Over the last two decades, presidents from both parties have designated nearly two dozen new national monuments that specifically honor or memorialize both landscapes and people, including Fort Monroe, César E. Chávez and Río Grande del Norte National Monuments.

This is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that protected landscapes are not isolated places separated from people — they have been shaped by past generations and will sustain generations to come. And second, designating more historical and cultural national monuments allows us to tell the full story of this country.

For too long, the narratives we highlighted with public lands and national monuments have been limited, leaving out many of those whose lives and experiences shaped these treasured landscapes — Indigenous peoples and tribes, African Americans, women and many others. Right now, less than one-quarter of national parks and monuments are dedicated to or recognize diverse peoples and cultures. At the same time, decades of stereotypes and discrimination have convinced some that nature and the outdoors are primarily — or even exclusively — the realm of the wealthy white man. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the depths of the Great Depression, 200,000 African Americans served in the Civilian Conservation Corps, restoring the nation’s natural resource infrastructure. Indigenous peoples shaped the landscapes of this country that are still felt today. By protecting more of these landscapes, we can expand those narratives and honor the Indigenous, Black, Latin, veterans and other peoples who have made their mark on public lands and waters.

Moreover, creating new national parks and monuments that represent diverse histories — the true history of the United States — would not only honor those histories, but also make outdoor spaces more welcoming to people of different backgrounds. National parks were officially segregated, like much of American society, until well into the 20th century, and the possibility of violence against people of color who ventured into these places was very real. To this day, Black, Indigenous and other people of color make up only a fraction of visitors at national parks and public lands sites. Honoring additional landscapes not only highlights the fullest and most complete history of our country, but it can help make these places more welcoming to those who have been historically excluded or don’t see themselves represented on the public lands we have right now.

Moreover, protecting more lands and waters can help us take on the climate crisis. Scientists are in agreement that in the U.S., we need to protect at least 30 percent of all lands and waters from extraction or degradation by 2030 if we’re going to successfully take on the climate crisis. That means protecting more landscapes in the next decade than we did in the last century. Every new national monument designated gets us closer to achieving that goal, creates more opportunities for people to connect with nature and participate in the outdoors recreation economy, and spreads the physical and mental health benefits of nature, like clean air and water.

Establishing national monuments ensures that our public lands are part of the climate solution, instead of fueling it, by ensuring these lands are protected from harmful oil and gas leasing. Drilling on public lands devastates millions of acres of nature, contributes to an increasing number of climate disasters and creates one-quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions. In the wake of increasingly devastating hurricanes, wildfires and heatwaves, we’ve seen that the brunt of these consequences are most heavily felt in lower-income communities and communities of color, who often have the least access to nature. We must work to protect more lands and green spaces and break down the barriers that prevent people from accessing these places, so they can reap nature’s benefits. 

President Biden can act right now to designate more national monuments. In Nevada, Indigenous activists are calling for the designation of Avi Kwa Ame, an ancient Indigenous site with spiritual importance to multiple Tribes. Racial justice groups have put forth sites in Springfield, Illinois to mark the 1908 white mob attack on Black residents that spurred the creation of the NAACP. And just outside El Paso, multiple groups are working to protect Castner Range, honoring the veterans who served at nearby Fort Bliss and commemorating the region’s rich Hispanic cultural heritage.

The story of public lands is ever progressing, and each new national monument designated adds a new chapter. Each new site fills in the pages with the legacies of those who came before us and who shaped these landscapes. It’s our duty to maintain those legacies and tell those stories for the next generation.

Chris Hill is the senior director of Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign. She is the first Black woman to lead Sierra Club’s legacy campaign on the outdoors and lands, water, and wildlife in its history. She has a background in law, community organizing and partnerships and more than a decade of experience advocating to protect communities and the natural world.

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