What’s the Difference Between a National Park and a National Monument?

Calf Creek Canyon in Grandstaircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

As someone whose living is based on Grand Teton National Park, I’m frequently asked what the difference between a national park and a national monument is. It’s a very good question. Both are operated by the National Park Service, vary in size, have beautiful sites, and frequently wildlife worth seeing, or at the least, protecting. So then what’s the difference? Why not just call them all national parks and avoid the confusion? Because as similar as they are, they’re also quite different, both in their history, as well as their designations.

The Birth of National Parks

Yellowstone National Park was the world’s first national park, and a radically new concept that had never been done before. A large tract of land was set aside solely for public use. At least, that’s the short and sweet version. In actuality, the park was heavily lobbied for by the railroad industry to have a destination to bring people to out west, thus heavily increasing their profits. Likewise, they were also given the monopoly on the concessions, lodging, and transportation, leaving no one to challenge their price-gouging.

Where was the National Park Service in all of this? They hadn’t been created yet. The National Park Service wasn’t created until the Organic Act of 1916 was passed to create the organization as a branch of the Department of the Interior. Prior to that, it was simply the cavalry looking after the few parks that had been created up to that point. In fact, Yellowstone’s national park designation was only given because Wyoming hadn’t yet gotten its statehood. Subsequently, John Muir was instrumental in building public support for more national parks, spawning a conservation revolution unlike anything that had ever been seen before.

Along Comes the Antiquities Act

Turret Arch below the moon in Arches National Park, Utah

Theodore Roosevelt was the first truly environmental president that really embraced the national parks. He found himself wanting to protect more land than Congress could keep up with however, so the Antiquities Act was drafted to allow a president to protect a landscape without the need to wait for congressional approval. Essentially, if a president wanted a piece of land protected, it was up to only the president in office to make it happen.

Generally speaking, many presidents have had outstanding foresight to see that certain areas should be protected for the long-term. Areas like this have either become outdoor recreation meccas, or even national parks themselves. A short list of the latter includes Grand Teton, Acadia, Arches, Grand Canyon, Zion, Olympic, Carlsbad Caverns, Bryce Canyon, and many more national parks, all of which were created as national monuments, many of the declared with a seething amount of opposition. Similarly, both Grand Staircase-Escalate and Bears Ears in southern Utah have become the defining emblems of national monuments. Both protect invaluable resources and native artifacts from looters as well as oil and gas development, while also offering outdoor enthusiasts endless hiking, climbing, canyoneering, and more opportunities to escape urban life.

Buttes at sunrise in Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

Yet these areas are now endangered. President Trump is the first president to drastically reduce the size of a park or monument, which he did with both Grand Staircase-Escalate and Bears Ears. The importance of national monuments cannot be underscored enough, and few will argue that Trump has the foresight of Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, or Barack Obama, just a few presidents known for leaving a legacy of protected lands for future generations. Now with these monuments’ status up in the air, the future of southern Utah’s outdoor recreation is just as unclear.

The Importance of National Monuments

Rainy sunset over Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Though national parks were certainly first, national monuments have had a tremendous impact in adding to public lands and destinations. National monuments also receive less traffic since they’re generally not as sought after as national parks, though frequently boast an equally impressive amount of scenery, history, or even outdoor recreation. Likewise, with so many national monuments ultimately becoming some of the most beloved national parks in the National Park Service itself, their importance cannot be understated enough. With our national monuments currently under fire, it’s more important than ever to show your appreciation for them, as well as to the gateway towns to these areas, to let them know that eco-tourism is a much better long-term investment for the future of our lands.

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