A Monumental Anniversary

8 January 2019

Nearly eighty years ago, on 29 January 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt created Badlands National Monument. Four decades later, in November 1978, Congress redesignated the site as Badlands National Park. While the park recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary, its origins as a national monument should be recognized as well. As the lengthy gap between these events suggests, perceptions of what qualifies a place for national monument or national park status have changed over time. Taken together, these anniversaries offer a unique opportunity to consider how these distinctions evolved and why they still matter.

An act of Congress created the first national park, Yellowstone, located in present-day Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, in 1872. President Theodore Roosevelt, meanwhile, designated the first national monument, Devil’s Tower, also in Wyoming, in 1906. These sites typify what initially made parks and monuments distinct, the former a sprawling swath of sublime scenery and the latter an isolated geological curiosity with limited potential for public use. Over time, however, the criteria for parks and monuments became nearly indistinguishable, relating to a prospective site’s recreational, scientific, or cultural value. Parks now include expansive wilderness areas like Glacier National Park in Montana and famed pieces of the built environment like Gateway Arch National Park in Saint Louis, Missouri. Monuments cover a similarly wide scope, from Alaska’s Misty Fjords—spanning more than two million acres—to Stonewall National Monument, which encompasses less than eight acres of New York City’s West Village. South Dakota has two national parks, Badlands and Wind Cave, and one national monument, Jewel Cave. Mount Rushmore is a national memorial, a designation given to places that commemorate key historic figures or events.

The process that created Yellowstone remains standard for national parks—an act of Congress is required. The power to designate national monuments, in contrast, stems from the Antiquities Act of 1906, which grants the president power to give both naturally occurring and built landmarks immediate protection. The Antiquities Act, as the late historian Hal Rothman has claimed, “is the most important piece of preservation legislation ever enacted by the United States government,” in part because it broadened perceptions of what kinds of places are worth preserving. National monument status has often been a stopgap, a way for presidents to shield public land without having to wait for congressional approval. Indeed, several national monuments, like Badlands, have later become national parks.

Badlands steadily gained territory in the forty years prior to its redesignation. It now spans 242,755 acres, up from roughly 50,000 at the time it became a national monument. Each year, around one-million visitors tour the park, drawn by its awe-inspiring scenery, diverse wildlife, and remarkable geological history. The park also holds immense cultural significance for the Oglala Lakota Tribe. Badlands National Park remains a one-of-a-kind place, a prime example of why preservation—whether of historic places, stunning landscapes, or fragile ecosystems—matters. As the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright described Badlands in 1935, a full four years before it received federal protection, “communion with what man often calls ‘God’ is inevitable in this place.”

For more about Badlands National Park and the state’s national parks, monuments, and memorials, see Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota by Fraser Harrison; A New Deal for South Dakota: Drought, Depression, and Relief, 1920–1941 by R. Alton Lee; and Love Letters from Mount Rushmore: The Story of a Marriage, a Monument, and a Time in History by Richard Cerasani.

Cody Ewert

 


Image at top is of a souvenir postcard from Badlands National Monument. Courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society.