Endangered National Parks and Monuments to Visit Now
From ancient Native American rock-art riddled with bullet holes to vandals plowing over Joshua trees, some of America's national monuments and parks are under constant threat from humanity.
Travelers cherish the exhilaration of laying eyes on the otherworldly pink-and-orange stone spires of Bryce Canyon for the first time. But in the future, they may not realize that air pollution clouding their selfies is coming from the recently approved expansion of an open-pit strip mine just outside the national park's boundary.
From sea to shining sea, we've spotlighted seven national parks and monuments in particular peril. And to keep the proceedings from being a total downer, we’ve also highlighted some positive conservation news courtesy of the massive, bipartisan public lands bill (the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act) recently signed into law.
All of these exceptional public lands may soon dramatically change. Visit now to ensure you can catch them in their full glory.
Bears Ears National Monument, Utah
Bears Ears holds perhaps the largest wealth of ancient Native American ruins, rock art and artifacts in the country. But it’s been a hotbed of controversy since President Obama created the monument in 2016. A year later, Utah politicians allied with the mining industry persuaded the Trump administration to drastically reduce its boundaries.
Before the monument designation, notably between the 1970s and late '90s, Bears Ears' serpentine sandstone canyons were a favorite target of vandals and so-called "pot hunters" who hauled off prehistoric pottery shards and jewelry by the bucket load. These thieves were even so brazen as to cut away petroglyph-bearing rock slabs with power saws. Welcome to the Wild West of antiquities looting.
The 2016 monument declaration was cheered by many conservationists, archaeologists, adventurous travelers and Native tribes, who consider the land sacred. Meanwhile, a chorus of boos rose from local off-road ATV vehicle users and energy companies (a uranium mine sits on the monument's doorstep).
And so, reinstatement of the monument's original boundaries will be tied up in a legal fight for the foreseeable future.
Exploring What's at Stake in Bears Ears
Southeast Utah's high desert is not the land of Yogi Bear sightings, a la Yellowstone National Park. Rather, "Bears Ears" refers to the monument's Native-named twin mountain buttes that resemble a bear's ears. Reaching most of the Native American cliff dwellings entails driving dirt roads (some doable in a high-clearance vehicle, others 4x4 only), followed by hikes of varying difficulty.
The monument's marquee ruin is Moon House, a beautifully preserved cliff dwelling and ceremonial center that dates to the 1200s. Reaching it is no small feat. You'll need to secure a visitation/hiking permit in advance, and the road to the trailhead shouldn't be attempted in anything but a 4x4 vehicle.
But what you're rewarded with is spectacular: a mystical cliff dwelling, where hikers can actually enter the main interior room — its plaster walls decorated with the painted pictograph moons that give the ruin its name.
Short on time, try Valley of The Gods. Removed from monument protection in 2017, this wonderland of isolated desert buttes and lonely mesas is like a miniature version of its iconic neighbor to the south, Monument Valley.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
The 1996 creation of this southwestern Utah monument pleased environmental groups, but promptly sparked controversy due in part to its immense size (originally 1.88 million acres). In particular, Utah politicians and mining interests saw it as a "massive Federal land grab."
Over the next two decades, the uproar seemed to die down. Some locals who'd initially opposed the monument realized the resulting mini-boom in tourism was of economic benefit to nearby towns like Kanab and Escalante, Utah.
After the 2016 Presidential election, Utah politicians and mining companies finally saw their chance to get the monument at least partially undone. And so, in 2017, the Trump administration shrunk the monument's size by nearly 47 percent. The reduction of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears monuments are now the subject of legal battles challenging the President's power to reverse land protections under the Antiquities Act of 1906.
Exploring What's at Stake at Grand Staircase-Escalante
Locals like to joke about travelers who arrive at Grand Staircase expecting to find the red-rock equivalent of Rome's famed Spanish Steps. Instead, the so-called "Staircase" is a massive geological formation of layered rock that spans the monument as it climbs south to north from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon.
Exploring most of the monument's canyons and beautifully bizarre rock formations involves driving dirt roads usually passable to high-clearance vehicles. Perhaps the most intriguing destinations lie on the monument's east side along the Escalante River Canyons.
Driving the Hole-In-The-Rock dirt road, you pass the fascinating hoodoo rock formations and arches of Devils Garden, a playground for photographers. Farther south lies the trailhead for a pair of impossibly narrow slot canyons named "Peek-a-Boo" and "Spooky Gulch."
Running alongside the road is the soaring Kaiparowits Plateau — long targeted for coal mining. If you correctly guessed that the road and portions of the plateau were strategically carved out of the monument, congratulations. As a prize, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke just may leave a big, beautiful lump of coal in your Christmas stocking.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
A pristine tapestry of piney woodlands, lazy rivers and sparkling lakes attracts canoers, fishermen, hikers and campers to this 1-million acre wilderness along the U.S.-Canada border in northwest Minnesota. For nature lovers who'd like to see this U.S. Forest Service-managed wilderness kept unspoiled, unfortunately it sits next door to one of the world's largest known deposits of copper and nickel.
Controversy centers on a proposed $1-billion copper-nickel mining operation that'd set up shop just outside the wilderness area, yet within its watershed. Naturally, the concern is that toxic runoff from the mine — expected to dig 20,000 tons of ore per day — will pollute the neighboring waterways and lakes. Three-eyed trout, anyone?
In 2016, mining foes slapped high-fives when the Obama administration terminated the Twin Metals company's long-held mining leases and proposed a 20-year mining ban to conduct environmental reviews. In 2018, the current administration took steps to reinstate the leases and, once secured in 2019, the company will submit a formal plan for the mine. In other words, the fight is far from over.
Exploring What's at Stake at Boundary Waters
Spring through fall, the preserve's 1,300 miles of canoe-able waters prove hugely popular with paddlers who make the 4-hour drive from the Twin Cities area. Day-use canoe permits are readily available, but the limited number of permits for overnight paddle-and-camp trips means they must be secured well in advance.
In a true wilderness like Boundary Waters, wildlife thrives. You may spot deer, black bear, moose or, if you're lucky, a sly Canadian lynx. The waters teem with beautiful bass, walleye, pike and trout. For anglers, northern Minnesota at dusk doesn't get much better than a fresh-fish supper cooked over a campfire and a purple-and-pink-streaked sunset mirrored in a glassy lake.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Considering this epic 19-million acre wilderness is more than 200 miles northeast of the nearest major airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, chances are good you'll never see it in person. Reaching such a remote locale from the lower 48 entails a long, expensive journey, and no one will fault you for choosing a sun-splashed Hawaii vacation instead. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't care about the ongoing ANWR oil-drilling debate that dates to the late 1970s.
In Washington D.C., oil extraction on ANWR's 1.9-million acre coastal plain has been a political tug of war for some 40 years. Yet a policy on ANWR drilling had never been signed into law until a pro-drilling provision was piggy-backed onto the Trump administration's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The provision mandates that the government sell oil-drilling leases to energy companies.
It’s the first step in what many predict will be a lengthy, years-long process involving Capitol Hill votes on the lease program’s implementation, and the inevitable anti-drilling lawsuits filed by environmental groups.
It's estimated that as much as 8-billion barrels worth of oil lie under the ANWR's coastal plain. So what would a major drilling operation actually look like? Using the neighboring oil fields of Prudhoe Bay as an example, the resident caribou herd would be staring down a vast infrastructure of drilling pads and buildings connected by a spider web of roads and pipelines crisscrossing once-pristine tundra. Environmentalists fear that besides the day-to-day degradation to native wildlife habitats, major drilling operations also pose the possibility of disastrous oil spills and gas leaks.
Exploring What's at Stake at ANWR
Nicknamed "America's Serengeti," the ANWR has no roads, hiking trails or "charming" B&Bs with Yelp reviews. A primeval land of craggy peaks, broad valleys, wild rivers and vast tundra, it's the stuff of Nat Geo documentaries focusing on bears (polar, brown and black), moose, caribou, wolves, foxes and countless other Arctic beasts.
To explore the refuge on your own, expert survival skills are a must, particularly in winter. No surprise, nearly all visitors plan summer trips (June through August) and go for guided, fully outfitted tours. From Fairbanks, you can hop a chartered flight arranged by companies like Arctic Treks and Arctic Wild, who'll lead you on Kongakut River rafting trips, backpacking adventures and wildlife photography expeditions.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
During the 35-day government shutdown of 2018-19, this beloved desert park outside Los Angeles became the poster child for shutdown damage thanks to visitors run amok without the supervision of furloughed park rangers. In addition to the temporary foulness of overflowing pit toilets and trash cans, permanent damage included a Joshua tree being knocked down and 4x4 vehicles driving off established dirt roads over fragile desert soil.
Though the damage is certainly serious, some fear it would pale in comparison to the harm a proposed hydroelectric power plant would inflict on Joshua Tree's desert ecosystem. If built, just 1.5 miles outside the park's southeast corner, Eagle Crest Energy Company's plant would pump billions of gallons of desert groundwater to generate electricity. Opponents claim that this would deplete natural springs that feed the park's palm oases — popular with thirsty bighorn sheep and day hikers.
In 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permitted the $2.5-billion plant project to move forward, but so far the company hasn't broken ground on construction. In 2019, Joshua Tree protection advocates cheered when the Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act expanded the park by some 4,500 acres, though none of that land is where the power plant would sit.
Exploring What's at Stake at Joshua Tree
To see a palm oasis the proposed hydro plant might render bone-dry, head to Cottonwood Spring, a lush cluster of California fan palms located a few concrete-staircase steps down from a parking lot near the Cottonwood Visitor Center. Just as pretty as the palms are a collection of shady cottonwood trees.
Up for a hike? Set off from Cottonwood Spring on the somewhat strenuous 7.2-mile roundtrip hike to Lost Palms Oasis (budget 4 to 5 hours). Set in a rugged canyon that's green with more than 100 palms, the oasis makes for a cool picnic spot after a hot, dusty trek.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Each year, millions flock to the Grand Canyon's South Rim to admire one of Mother Nature's masterpieces. Just 6 miles southeast of the rim, in the Kaibab National Forest, you'll encounter a not-so-sublime sight: Energy Fuels Inc.'s 17-acre uranium and copper mine site.
The mine was shuttered in 1991 when uranium prices tanked, but now the company aims to reopen it. Dismayed environmentalists and the local Havasupai Tribe fear toxic contaminants would flow through underground streams to the Colorado River. For evidence, they point to the nearby Orphan Mine. Though abandoned in 1969, water samples taken from nearby underground springs still contain unsafe levels of dissolved uranium some 50 years later.
In 2012, about 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon were placed off limits to new uranium mining claims for 20 years. However, the moratorium didn't block existing mining permits, including the one held by Energy Fuels' South Rim site. While opponents also worry about wind-blown radioactive dust from stockpiles of mined uranium, the National Mining Association maintains there is scant evidence the operation would pose any threat to the environment or visitor experience.
Exploring What's at Stake at the Grand Canyon
The South Rim's spectacular canyon viewpoints are the stuff of Instagram gold. If you're curious about yellowcake uranium and the location of the old Orphan Mine, it once perched on the canyon rim between Maricopa and Powell points, just northwest of Grand Canyon Village, off Hermit Road.
The last standing mine structure was dismantled in 2008 and the area is fenced off from visitors. But at Powell Point you'll find an information plaque with historic photos.
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon & California
Logging companies howled in protest when forced to holster their chainsaws in the wake of the Obama administration expanding the footprint of this forested monument in early 2017. Later that year, President Trump ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to review and possibly scale back the size of 27 national monuments, including Cascade-Siskiyou's 113,000 acres of mountainous, old-growth forest and grasslands straddling the Southern Oregon-Northern California border.
Ultimately, only two monuments in Utah were reduced, while Cascade-Siskiyou was left intact. But that didn't prevent a logging industry lawsuit which claims some 40,000 acres included in the 2017 expansion were already designated for timber harvesting. While a court ruling is pending, welcome news recently arrived when the Conservation, Management and Recreation Act protected 18 miles of Cascade-Siskiyou's Jenny Creek as a part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Exploring What's at Stake at Cascade-Siskiyou
There's nothing like huffing and puffing up a steep switchback trail to help you forget all about public lands politics. Though difficult, the 2.8-mile roundtrip Pilot Rock Trail may be the monument's most popular hike. From the summit of this volcanic plug, you're treated to sweeping views of Mount Shasta and the Siskiyou Mountains.
If that sounds like too tall an order, opt for the easier 2.6-mile roundtrip trek to Hobart Bluff. The relatively level trail passes through old-growth forest and rolling meadows (in spring, blooming with wildflowers), then climbs to a bluff top with knock-out views of the surrounding mountains.
If you're on a road trip along Interstate 5 through California and Oregon, both trailheads are easily accessible from the highway.