One woman's enlightening trek through the natural histories, cultural stories, and present perils of thirteen national monuments, from Maine to Hawaii
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.
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: Papahanaumokuakea 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
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"
"With intricately woven stories and stunningly artistic prose, This Contested Land invokes the intense power of relationships between humans and landscapes – a force that not only influences what people think should happen to a specific place but what the future of our Earth itself might become."
– Katie Ives, editor-in-chief of Alpinist and author of Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams
"McKenzie Long takes an evenhanded and compelling view of the complex nature of natural monuments both past, present, and future. She masterfully weaves the challenging history that precedes our current time – one of brutal Indigenous removal – with the current context of settler communities that are tied into these landscapes today. Her telling of her relationships with these places gives us deeper insight into the future we will share together on our public lands."
– Len Necefer, Ph.D., CEO and founder, NativesOutdoors
"This book is a must-read for anyone interested in national monuments today, their values, and the issues surrounding them."
– National Parks Traveler
"Long's reporting is balanced, and her accounts are comprehensive, but the passages detailing her passion for these national treasures and for preserving and protecting them are the book's most compelling parts. A great storyteller, she has a knack for weaving in personal anecdotes and telling details, helping readers appreciate both the beauty of these monuments and the challenges they face."