This Contested Land

The Storied Past and Uncertain Future of America’s National Monuments

2022
Author:

McKenzie Long

One woman’s enlightening trek through the natural histories, cultural stories, and present perils of thirteen national monuments, from Maine to Hawaii

McKenzie Long visits thirteen national monuments, from Golde Butte in Nevada to Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, and writes an eye-opening exploration of the stories these natural sites tell, the passions they stir, and the controversies surrounding them today. In essays both contemplative and resonant, This Contested Land confronts an unjust past and imagines a collaborative future that bears witness to these regions’ enduring Indigenous connections.

In This Contested Land, McKenzie Long reframes national monuments in the American consciousness. With painterly language, superb historical research, and engaging boots-on-the-ground storytelling, this book explores crevices for meaning and truth in what for many is a gray area between politics and place. This is a vivid, smart, and overdue book.

Kathryn Aalto, author of Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World

This land is your land. When it comes to national monuments, the sentiment could hardly be more fraught. Gold Butte in Nevada, Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks in New Mexico, Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine, Cascade–Siskiyou in Oregon and California: these are among the thirteen natural sites McKenzie Long visits in This Contested Land, an eye-opening exploration of the stories these national monuments tell, the passions they stir, and the controversies surrounding them today.

Starting amid the fragrant sagebrush and red dirt of Bears Ears National Monument on the eve of the Trump Administration’s decision to reduce the site by 85 percent, Long climbs sandstone cliffs, is awed by Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings and is intrigued by 4,000-year-old petroglyphs. She hikes through remote pink canyons recently removed from the boundary of Grand Staircase–Escalante, skis to a backcountry hut in Maine to view a truly dark night sky, snorkels in warm Hawaiian waters to plumb the meaning of marine preserves, volunteers near the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States, and witnesses firsthand the diverse forms of devotion evoked by the Rio Grande. In essays both contemplative and resonant, This Contested Land confronts an unjust past and imagines a collaborative future that bears witness to these regions’ enduring Indigenous connections.

From hazardous climate change realities to volatile tensions between economic development and environmental conservation, practical and philosophical issues arise as Long seeks the complicated and often overlooked—or suppressed—stories of these incomparable places. Her journey, mindfully undertaken and movingly described, emphasizes in clear and urgent terms the unique significance of, and grave threats to, these contested lands.

McKenzie Long is a rock climber, graphic designer, and writer who lives in the Sierra Nevada. A former managing editor at OutdoorGearLab.com, she is the coauthor of two climbing guidebooks and author of an award-winning essay, “The Alphabet Effect,” published in Nowhere magazine. She was a writer in residence at Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California, where she was named the 2019 Terry Tempest Williams Fellow for Land and Justice.

In This Contested Land, McKenzie Long reframes national monuments in the American consciousness. With painterly language, superb historical research, and engaging boots-on-the-ground storytelling, this book explores crevices for meaning and truth in what for many is a gray area between politics and place. This is a vivid, smart, and overdue book.

Kathryn Aalto, author of Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World

This Contested Land takes readers deep into debates over national monuments. Through interviews, exploration, and vivid history, McKenzie Long unearths conflicting attitudes about human relationships to land and wildlife, tensions that go to the heart of our relationship with our country. This insightful book is essential reading for anyone who wants a better understanding of these fraught areas’ past and future.

Kim Todd, author of Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters"

Acknowledgments

Introduction: A Closer Look

National Monuments Visited in This Book

Part 1 – Rock

1. The Heart of Bears Ears: Bears Ears National Monument, Utah

2. The Conflict of Dreams: Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine

3. The Meaning of Monuments: Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, California

Part 2 – Rift

4. Seeing: Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon and California

5. Digging: Castle Mountains National Monument, California

6. Shifting: Sand to Snow National Monument, California

7. Expanding: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, Hawaii

8. Layering: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah

Part 3 – Ripple

9. On Sharing: Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico

10. On Reactions: Hanford Reach National Monument, Washington

11. On Walls: Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, New Mexico

12. On Patterns: Basin and Range National Monument, Nevada

13. On Possession: Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada

Epilogue: Looking Forward

American Antiquities Act of 1906

List of Presidential Monument Proclamations

Selected Resources

Index