When President Trump announced in April that he had signed an executive order that could potentially reverse the protected status of 27 national monuments, the news coverage was shallow and fleeting at best. In our new world order where every day is filled with breaking news, the national outrage quickly moved on to other issues.
A few months later, journalist Brent Rose was traveling through Nevada in mid-June (he’s been “doing the whole vanlife thing” for almost two years now) when he heard about the at-risk public lands and decided to look them up.
Not only was he shocked at how incredible the monuments up for review are, but he was also surprised to discover that a public comments period had been quietly opened allowing citizens to weigh in on the matter until July 10. But no one seemed to know about it.
“I started talking to a couple other people and it didn’t seem like it was on anyone’s radar. There’s so much happening with the administration and with various other things that we’re overwhelmed by the chaos,” Rose tells The Daily Beast. “Some of these places have been untouched for thousands of years, and if we start exploiting them now and destroying them now, we can’t un-destroy them later.”
He realized that he was in a unique position to help publicize the danger of development and drilling that these sites are facing. With help from a friend who works at a data and mapping company, Rose figured out a route that would allow him to visit 21 of the national monuments in less than a month—all before the July 10 deadline. His campaign 27 Monuments was born.
Twenty or so days later, Rose has driven 6,500 miles in his trusty tricked out van Ashley (also known as The Beast) and has visited 22 of the at-risk preserves. (He made a last minute trip by air to the monument in Maine. The remaining five are all marine sites.) At each stop, he has filmed a short video that covers the incredible features—ecological, cultural, and even recreational—of the locations, many of which are right in our backyards.
Take stop number 20, the San Gabriel Mountains. Covering nearly 350,000 acres near L.A., the area is geographically diverse (encompassing three distinct wilderness areas), is a culturally important site for Native Americans, and is a popular outdoor recreation spot (think hiking and biking trails and ski mountains) for the 5 million people who visit each year.
Or stop number four, Bears Ears, a 1.3 million-acre park in Utah that has tens of thousands of archeological sites including ancient petroglyphs that are so well preserved that Rose says they look like they were “chipped last week” and ancient homesteads cut into the cliffs that visitors can walk through.
“I find myself a zombie in between stops and driving and editing and just kind of working on autopilot,” Rose says. “And then I end up showing up at these places, and I kind of wake up because they’re so beautiful, and something in every one of them has grabbed me.”
It’s been a grueling trip, but Rose hopes that this social media blitz will publicize the danger the national monuments are in and encourage people to submit their own pleas to the Department of the Interior to save them.
Rose is quick to mention that saving the monuments is not a partisan issue. As he points out in the project’s introduction video, Democrats and Republicans share equal love for the outdoors. In fact, of the 16 presidents that have used the Antiquities Act to creation national monuments over the last 111 years, eight have been Republicans and eight Democrats.
But when it comes to our current government, there may be an agenda at play.
Bears Ears is the site that Rose calls “ground zero” for Trump’s executive order. It took five different Native American tribes many years to successfully advocate to turn the area into a national monument, but Utah Republicans are interested in developing some of the land.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recently visited the national monument on an impartial fact-finding mission wherein Rose says he spent four days meeting with the opposition team, but only one hour with the tribal coalition advocating for the public lands before he recommended that the size of the national monument should be reduced.
National Parks may have a bigger profile, but national monuments are just as important in their environmental and cultural significance, not to mention the rich experience they offer visitors.
Whereas national parks tend to have a bit more funding—and the paved roads, signage, and park rangers that come along with that—“[national monuments] are kind of like the rough step brother of the national park system,” Rose says.
“What makes them so special in another way is that they have this raw feeling to them, and they’re way less touristy. They just feel like you’re kind of walking through this natural state as it existed thousands of years ago. And in many cases you are.”
Visiting these national monuments is an incredible experience, but also one that offers some pretty interesting adventures if, say, you’re trying to hit up 22 of them in the space of about 20 days. Rose had a few, to say the least.
To begin with, the mathematically optimized route that Rose and his friend had initially developed had to be re-calibrated at the very beginning of the trip after a brutal heat wave hit the southwest. Rose found himself shooting a video in Nevada in the 115-degree heat, and realized he couldn’t keep doing that while the temperatures skyrocketed.
Then there was the time he and his dad got lost in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. Mid-trip, Rose’s dad realized how little sleep his son was running on as he juggled driving between locations; shooting, editing, and posting videos; and all the pesky day-to-day tasks of life. He decided to cancel a planned vacation and meet up with Rose to help drive and cook.
Rose wanted to shoot the video for that particular monument at the Boole tree, a giant Sequoia that is the largest tree in the U.S. and the sixth largest in the world.
Using Google Maps (“which was probably our first mistake”), they found themselves driving deep into the woods in five-ton Ashley on a path that was meant for jeeps and ATVs (remember the scrappy, unpaved roads of national monuments?). Finally, they got to the bottom of a steep hill and ran into a flooded creek. They were stuck with no cellphone reception.
Just before Rose could hike up a nearby mountain to find some phone coverage and call in a helicopter to save them, he realized that some scattered wood wasn’t a dam as he first thought, but the makeshift creek bridge that had been washed out by the rising waters. “I feel confident we can rebuild this,” he remembers thinking.
“It was like playing large-scale Tetris for survival,” Rose says. They finally got the logs in place and made it across the water before realizing they were still lost. They decided to set up camp for the night. “We didn’t see another human being for that entire time. We were just in the middle of nowhere. It was really beautiful though. The place where we ended up camping, if we’d intended to be there and were in a vehicle that was capable of handling that, it was a great place to camp.”
Now, spots like those are in danger. With just a couple days left to go, the Department of the Interior has received 1.2 million public comments, although Rose and several other nonprofits that he has started working with are hoping to get that number up to 2 million by the Monday deadline.
After that—and after a major sleep catch-up—Rose says he’ll continue encouraging Americans to write to their representatives before he tackles his next project.
Recently, Trump signed a new executive order that puts several more marine monuments on the chopping block, and this time it’s personal. One of the new endangered sites is Monterey Bay, a monument that holds a special place in the heart of one van-loving San Francisco native.