Why is Death Valley a national monument rather than a national park?

Dear Cecil:

Why is Death Valley denominated a national monument, rather than a national park? With over 500 square miles of its area below sea level, it hardly comports with the popular idea of a "monument." Are large numbers of trees strictly necessary for the "park" designation?

Cecil replies:

Two problems here, Steve. #1, Death Valley, although designated a national monument in 1933, has been a national park since 1994. #2, you’re expressing a notion that is considered highly retrograde in progressive park management circles, whose adherents have spent decades trying to extinguish the misguided “popular idea” of what ought to constitute a national monument (or, for that matter, a national park)–that is, a collection of curiosities that tourists are supposed to come and gawk at for a couple hours before heading off to the KOA campground. National monuments were originally intended to preserve sites of historical or scientific interest, without regard to their value as tourist attractions. Death Valley, which among other things holds the record for hottest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere (134 degrees Fahrenheit), certainly qualifies in this respect, although it is not without its scenic aspects besides. Unfortunately, the use of the term “monument” has tended to obscure the original purpose of the designation in the public mind.

The distinction between parks and monuments is a bit arbitrary and mostly reflects the different ways in which the two are chosen. National parks and most other national reserves are created by act of Congress. National monuments, on the other hand, are selected at the sole discretion of the president from among available federal lands, under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906. As its title suggests, the act was intended mainly to protect areas of historical and anthropological value, such as Indian ruins–that is to say, places associated with activities of man. As something of an afterthought, a line had been included in the act permitting the designation of sites containing “other objects of historical or scientific interest,” meaning fossils and whatnot. Prior to 1906, many such sites had been badly damaged by souvenir hunters.

However, Teddy Roosevelt, who was president at the time of the act’s passage, promptly construed “objects of scientific interest” to mean things like mountains, and designated as the first national monument Devils Tower in Wyoming, a striking volcanic formation that you may recall from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This choice, although not unreasonable, tended to perpetuate the idea that the government was mainly in the business of preserving scenic wonders. Thus no one paid much attention to areas that were scientifically interesting but not particularly scenic, such as the prairies of Iowa and Illinois, virtually none of which now remain in their native state. Proponents of Everglades National Park in Florida in the early 1930s had a similar problem; the big swamp was mainly saved because it, unlike the prairies, was unusable for any other purpose. Equally unusable Death Valley was designated around the same time.

National monuments are generally smaller than national parks and less diverse in terms of the number of “attractions” they contain. Death Valley National Monument, though, was huge, and the absence of trees notwithstanding, many urged Congress to upgrade its status to national park, which Congress eventually did. National park and national monument are just 2 of roughly 15 terms applied to various sites administered by the National Park Service, which include national lake and seashores, recreation areas, battlefields, memorials, and so on. All of these are to be distinguished from the national forests, which are overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture. They chop down trees–lots of trees–in national forests. But that’s an subject for another day.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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