Sunday, August 20, 2017

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve: The Least Visited NPS Unit

Aerial View of Aniakchak Caldera
NPS Photo

This post is a bit off the beaten path for me, and its subject is very far off the beaten path...  I stumbled on this National Monument today while looking into the Alaskan monuments for my National Monuments in Danger project, and re-discovered an article I read years ago sitting in a waiting room someplace, "Baked Alaska: Surviving Aniakchak National Monument," by Christoper Solomon in Outside Magazine.

So, this place is definitely on my bucket list.  However, it is the least visited unit in the National Park Service system for a reason.  It is remote, it is full of bears, and I saw one mention that it is the most expensive place to visit in Alaska.

But, for a very spectacular caldera and the rafting trip out of the caldera to the ocean?  Sounds amazing.

That article, and the links below, tell the story of the monument and caldera well.  I'll let them speak for themselves.

Aniakchak-caldera alaska.jpg
By M. Williams, National Park Service -, Public Domain, Link

Aniakchak resurgent dome


Cloud Niagara, Aniakchak

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A spectacular Aniakchak album


Baked Alaska: Surviving Aniakchak National Monument (April 2014)

National Park Service

Official Site

A New History of the Aniakchak Landscape: A Historic Resource Study for Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve

An Administrative History of the Katmai and Aniakchak NPS Units, Alaska


Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve

Mount Aniakchak


Thursday, August 17, 2017

National Monuments in Danger

Morning in the Valley of the Gods
Bears Ears National Monument. Utah. May 13, 2016.
Copyright © 2017 A. F. Litt, All Rights Reserved

National Monuments in Danger

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Before the comments deadline passes for the national monuments currently "under review" by the Interior Department for reduction or elimination, I hope to post some information and images on each of the monuments on the list.

I've been to some of them, but I will be supplementing this series with photos from other sources, too. Of course, I'd love to spend the next month on the road visiting each of them myself, but that just isn't possible right now!

This list starts with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, the two monuments in the most jeopardy, and then will continue in alphabetical order from there.

UPDATE - July 9, 2017:

Well, I made it... At least one post on all 27 monuments!

But now?  We are down to the final HOURS of the comment period! Please, take the time today to comment on the fate of this national monument, any of the other 27 monuments on the Interior Department's list, or on the fate of all of them.

National Monuments in Danger

National Monuments in Distress: Combating Arguments Against the Antiquities Act (August 1, 2017)

Oil and Gas and the BLM (July 3, 2017)
Tracking BLM press releases on Oil and Gas leases, sales, etc.

27 Monuments Project (June 19, 2017)

27 Monuments Update (June 30, 2017)

I've Got a Bad Feeling About This... (July 9, 2017)

Yucca House National Monument: NPS Centennial Project (July 31, 2017)

"Delisted" by the NPS: Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area (August 2, 2017)

Fossil Cycad National Monument: How to Kill a Monument Through Neglect (August 17, 2017)

National Monuments Being Initially Reviewed Pursuant to Criteria in Executive Order 13792

Executive Order 13792 - Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act:

Bears Ears National Monument

1,353,000 acres

Kids Speak for Parks (August 2, 2017)

Current Map (June 2017):

Grand Staircase-Escalante

1,700,000 acres

A Grand Stair Step (September 13, 2016)

27 Monuments Stop #5 (June 21, 2017)

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument: The Ecology Economy of Escalante (UTopia TV Episode 9) (July 29, 2017)

Basin and Range

703,585 acres

Carl Leaves His Mark at 27 Monuments Stop #9 (June 28, 2017)

Berryessa Snow Mountain

330,780 acres

A Monument in Danger (July 3, 2017)

"The Indie Label of Outdoor Spaces" and 27 Monuments Stop #16 (July 3, 2017)

Canyons of the Ancients

175,160 acres

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument: Is it Really Safe? (July 31, 2017)

27 Monuments Stop #3 (June 19, 2017)

Sleeping Ute Mountain from Lowry Pueblo (September 23, 2016) 

Carrizo Plain

204,107 acres

Super Bloom (June 13, 2017)

27 Monuments Stop #18 (July 9, 2017)


100,000 acres

Facing Elimination by Congress and 27 Monuments Stop #14 (July 1, 2017)

Videos and Updates (July 29, 2017)

Craters of the Moon

737,525 acres

27 Monuments Stop #10 (June 30, 2017)

1962 Addition to the National Monument (June 18, 2017)

Storm Approaching the Craters of the Moon (September 12, 2016)

Giant Sequoia

327,760 acres

27 Monuments Stop #17 (July 8, 2017)

Gold Butte

296,937 acres

27 Monuments Stop #8 (June 26, 2017)

Grand Canyon-Parashant

1,014,000 acres

27 Monuments Stop #7 (June 26, 2017)

Hanford Reach

194,450.93 acres

27 Monuments Stop #13 (July 1, 2017)

Ironwood Forest

128,917 acres

What These 27 Monuments Mean to Me... (July 9, 2017)

27 Monuments Stop #25 (July 9, 2017)

Mojave Trails

1,600,000 acres

National Monuments in Danger (June 13, 2017)

27 Monuments Stop #22 (July 9, 2017)

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks

New Mexico
496,330 acres

27 Monuments Stop #2 (June 19, 2017)

Combating Arguments Against the Antiquities Act (August 1, 2017)

Rio Grande del Norte

New Mexico
242,555 acres

27 Monuments Stop #1 (June 19, 2017)

Sand to Snow

154,000 acres

National Monuments in Danger (June 14, 2017)

27 Monuments Stop #21 (July 9, 2017)

San Gabriel Mountains

346,177 acres

Los Angeles' Urban Oasis (July 3, 2017)

27 Monuments Stop #20 (July 9, 2017)

Sonoran Desert

486,149 acres

A Freeway Monument (July 3, 2017)

27 Monuments Stop #24 (July 9, 2017)

Upper Missouri River Breaks

377,346 acres

27 Monuments Stop #12 (July 1, 2017)

Vermilion Cliffs

279,568 acres

Vermilion Cliffs (September 14, 2016)

27 Monuments Stop #6 (June 26, 2017)

National Monuments Being Reviewed To Determine Whether the Designation or Expansion Was Made Without Adequate Public Outreach and Coordination With Relevant Stakeholders 

Katahdin Woods and Waters 

87,563 acres

Secretary Zinke Goes Exploring (June 17, 2017)

27 Monuments Stop #27 (July 29, 2017)

Marine National Monuments Being Reviewed Pursuant to Executive Orders 13795 and 13792

Executive Order 13792 - Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act:

Executive Order 13795 - Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy:

Marianas Trench

CNMI/Pacific Ocean
60,938,240 acres

A Long Run to the Far Side (And Bottom) of the World (July 9, 2017)

Sanctuaries in Danger and 27 Monuments "Stop" #26 (July 29, 2017)

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts

Atlantic Ocean
3,114,320 acres

27 Monuments "Stop" #11 (July 1, 2017)

Pacific Remote Islands

Pacific Ocean
55,608,320 acres

27 Monuments "Stop" #19 (July 9, 2017)


89,600,000 acres

27 Monuments "Stop" #15 (July 3, 2017)

Rose Atoll

American Samoa
8,609,045 acres

27 Monuments "Stop" #23 (July 9, 2017)

National Monuments in Danger

NPR: What Utah's Canyon Country Can Tell Us About Trump's Monuments Review (June 10, 2017) 

This article is mostly focused on Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is number two on the Trump Administrations hit list, but it deals with many of the same issues as the others, and it is a good look at the longer term effects of these sorts of monuments. It was the first one to be managed by the BLM and just turned 20 years old in 2016.

Leaked documents show Trump administration plans more mining and drilling on public lands (The Trump administration looks to “streamline” the fossil fuel extraction process)

Washington Post: Trump orders review of national monuments, vows to ‘end these abuses and return control to the people’

Donate to The Wilderness Society: Stop President Trump from making a monumental mistake

Salon: Dear President Trump: America’s most egregious “federal land grab” was in 1891, under Benjamin Harrison

LA Times: Here are the national monuments being reviewed under Trump's order

USA Today: 24 national monuments threatened by Trump's executive order

National Monuments in Danger

Fossil Cycad National Monument: How to Kill a Monument Through Neglect

Architectural concept drawings for a visitor center at Fossil Cycad National Monument
NPS Photo
Public Domain

National Monuments in Danger

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Fossil Cycad National Monument's history is fascinating, but tragic...

Most early monuments were managed and supervised very lightly, often by just hanging a sign that said, essentially, "Hey, this is a National Monument!  Leave it alone!"  At Fossil Cycad, as the story goes, due to a lack of management and supervision, visitors collecting fossils so ravaged the site that, by the time the monument was abolished, there were no fossils left to be found, and, therefore, there remained no need to continue the site's monument status.

That is the popular story, but it is a very oversimplified version of the story.

In reality, the abolishment of this monument was more due to it being a piece of land that no one seemed to want to take responsibility for, or spend money on, rather than being due to the depletion of fossils at the site.

According to Wikipedia, "In 1920, Yale paleobotanist George Reber Wieland obtained the fossil cycad-rich land under the Homestead Act 'in order that the cycads might not fall into unworthy hands.'  Two years later he offered to return the land to the federal government if a national monument could be established to protect the fossils."  This offer was accepted, and on October 21, 1922 the monument was created by President Warren Harding.

Public Domain

The National Park Service (NPS) describes the life and death of the monument as such: "By the 1930s, most of the fossilized plants called cycads were depleted from the surface at Fossil Cycad National Monument. Years of neglect, unauthorized fossil collecting, unchallenged research collecting and a general misunderstanding of paleontological resources, lead to the near complete loss of the resource in which the monument was named and designated. In the early 1950s, it had become apparent that the National Park Service failed to uphold the mission addressed in the Organic Act at Fossil Cycad National Monument. Therefore, in 1957, under the request of the National Park Service, one of America's important paleontological localities lost its status as a unit of the National Park System."

The superstar at this monument, as the National Parks Conservation Association explains, was "one of the world’s greatest concentrations of Cretaceous-period fossils, known informally as cycads or scientifically as Bennettitales. These 120-million-year-old plant fossils have unique branching features and reproductive systems, and scientists believe they might hold important clues to the evolution of flowering plants."

It wasn't just the concentration of the fossils that made this site so special, either.  The article above quotes paleobotanist, and director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Kirk Johnson, explaining that the specimens found at Fossil Cycad were incredibly well preserved. "Because they were petrified, and in many cases replaced with silica, much of their internal anatomy was fossilized, sometimes at a near cellular level.  This allowed [paleontologists] to study them with the resolution that could be applied to living plants.”

Johnson goes on to describe what was lost at this site.  “Had the trunks not been hauled off by museums and souvenir hunters, the monument would have been a rare place where visitors could have wandered in a petrified landscape that was wholly unlike anything alive today."  An early photo of the site shows one of the first scientists to visit the site sitting on a huge petrified log backed by the rolling hills and meadows of the area.

Thomas Macbride, seated on a petrified log near the Minnekahta cycad beds, was the first scientist to recognize the significance of this fossil locality
Calvin Photographic Collection, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Iowa

There was really never any realprotection of the surface fossils at this site, before or after the creation of the monument.   While the scene might have once resembled Johnson's description above, by the time of the monument's designation, few if any fossils remained on the surface.  In the early 1890s, locals were selling "petrified pineapples" from the site, and early scientific collections in the area hauled many of the surface specimens from the area.  This continued, both locals taking specimens to sell and scientists collecting samples for research, for decades, up to the creation of the monument in 1922.

After the establishment of the monument, in a great, government catch-22, the lack of surface, in situ fossils was a huge factor in the lack of development and supervision of the site, but most of the surface fossils were gone before the NPS was even involved in the first place, and the full blame for the depletion of surface fossils does not rest with them.

As National Parks Traveler explains, by the time the monument was created "there was nothing there to supervise. The fossil cycads that could once be seen on the surface were already gone!!"

In fairness to President Harding and others involved, it was known that the site had been stripped of its surface fossils, but expert opinion held that other fossil cycads might someday be exposed by erosion – in which event, it would be appropriate to have them protected. You could say that the park was established in the hope that there might eventually be 'surficial in situ' fossil cycads for visitors to marvel at.

Of course, there was little the NPS could do before the establishment of the monument in 1922, but even after it was established, no one seemed interested in the site, and this probably had more to do with the eventual abolishment of the monument than the lack of surface fossils.  The NPS just didn't want it.

When the monument was established, it was placed under the administration of Wind Cave National Park, "but day-to-day supervision was left to local ranchers. "  Of course, local ranchers had been selling the petrified cycad off for years.  The Superintendent of Wind Cave National Park seemed to pay little attention at all to the monument under his responsibility for its first 11 years, since it was not mentioned in any of his annual reports until 1933, the same year he couldn't obtain a specimen of the monument's namesake fossil.

In "1933, the Wind Cave superintendent was asked to provide a fossil cycad specimen for display at the World's Fair in Chicago. He had to sheepishly admit that he didn’t have one and couldn’t get one."

Visits to the monument by Wind Cave staff  were "sporadic and brief" during the first years of the monument, and there was not even an "official" review of the site by NPS staff until 1929 when the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park was sent to "visit and evaluate some of the undeveloped or proposed parks and monuments in the western states."

The report on that visit to NPS Director Horace Albright explained that “all available specimens have been picked up, and there is nothing left that is of interest to visitors.” This report's conclusions helped set the tone of the monument's administration for the rest of its existence, “The present reputation of the national parks and monuments, as places worthy of a considerable journey, is well worth maintaining.  So far as I can find out, the Fossil Cycad National Monument has nothing to protect, and perhaps no bed of fossils. If it has no value, present or future, it is a liability, not an asset, to the rest of the system. Unless Professor Wieland, or someone, can furnish information indicating some purpose to be served by the area, it would seem to be desirable to discontinue it as a national monument."

George Wieland supervises CCC during an excavation at Fossil Cycad National Monument in 1935
NPS Photo
Public Domain

There were still fossils there, though.  In 1935, a dig led by Wieland, utilizing Civilian Conservation Corps labor excavated "over a ton of uneroded specimens" which led to Wieland lobbying for further NPS development of the site.  By this point, though, the monument was already considered a dud, and the ensuing debates between Wieland and the site's acting geologist Caroll H. Wegemann, who felt that, at best, there would never be the surface display opportunities within the monument, and that, at worst, there were no more fossils to be discovered period, further sealed the monument's doom.  There were even accusations that Wieland himself had looted the bulk of the surface specimens from the site.

And Wegemann was proven incorrect, there are still fossils there now, under the surface, as revealed by the construction of a highway through the former monument in 1980, during which "fossil cycad material was unearthed." Perhaps this could have formed the basis of a small exhibit at a relatively unknown and undeveloped unit of the NPS? Still, by the time there were once again surface, in situ fossils at the location, fossils worthy of showcasing, the monument had been abolished for decades.

Certainly, there are precedents for maintaining the status of such monuments, such as Yucca House National Monument in Colorado.  Very few people visit this tiny, undeveloped NPS unit with unexcavated Ancestral Puebloan ruins, but the monument status has been maintained since its creation in 1919 due to the immense historic and scientific value of the site.

While the popular story of the monument is that it was depleted by thieves, largely due to poor supervision and management, and therefore lost its worth as a monument, the real story is a lot more complicated than this.

There was poor management involved, but it really had to do more with the NPS not wanting to manage a unit that was dull rather than one lacking in scientific value.  The value was there, the desire was not.  Considering the fact that there are still fossils there, just not clearly visible, it seems as if monument status was justified.  The NPS study of the mismanagement of the monument shares a quote from paleontologist Dr. Theodore White, "No present areas of the National Park Service contain fossil cycads. Therefore it could be concluded that the area should have been retained in the system based on its merits in relation to the thematic evaluation."

After an attempt by the South Dakota Historical Society to obtain the site, whose secretary wrote, in 1955, "the National Parks Service thinks [the monument] is a white elephant and wants to get it off its paper," the preservation of the site passed over to the Bureau of Land Management when the monument was abolished by Congress in 1956.

In 1997, after being nominated by members of the public, the BLM designated the old monument site as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern," which denotes an area "where special management attention is needed to protect and prevent irreparable damage to resources." Since the site remains on BLM lands, the fossils are still protected by the Antiquities Act, and the legislation abolishing the monument boosts these protections.

Today, there is no public access, no signage, and nothing on the surface but a highway and grazing livestock, but even just the story of the monument seems worthy of some commemoration at the site.

Original wooden sign from Fossil Cycad National Monument
NPS Photo
Public Domain

Recently, there was a small resurgence of interest in the monument.

Apparently, the BLM in 2014 was "considering erecting interpretive signs or developing a website to tell the monument’s story," and, the same year, a traveling exhibit was under preparation by the Smithsonian presenting the story of Fossil Cycad.  Plans for the exhibit included "panels with text and photographs, a replica of a fossil, and a copy of one of two original hand-routed signs from the monument, which a paleontologist discovered two years ago in the Museum of Geology at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. "

To me, this should be a cautionary tale when looking at the fate of the 27 monuments currently under review.  If monuments such as Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears are not preserved, who is to say what will happen to the unknown and/or undeveloped fossil and archaeological resources still waiting to be unearthed and discovered there?

Abolishing a monument should never be taken lightly, and at Fossil Cycad, it can definitely be argued that a monument was killed off before its time.

Fossil Cycad National Monument

South Dakota
46th National Monument
320 Acres

Established by Presidential Proclamation: October 21, 1922 by President Warren Harding
Disbanded as a National Monument: August 1, 1956 by the 84th Congress (S. 1161)

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Visit for more information.


National Park Service


Glimpses of Our National Monuments: Fossil Cycad National Monument  (1930)

Dakoterra Vol. 6: Proceedings of the 10th Conference on Fossil Resources, Rapid City, SD May 2014


National Parks Conservation Association

Gone But Not Forgotten

Pacific Standard


National Parks Traveler

Pruning the Parks: Delisted Over a Half-Century Ago, Fossil Cycad National Monument (1922-1956) is a Cautionary Tale

Atlas Obscura

The National Park That Was Stolen to Death: Fossil Cycad National Monument held America’s richest deposit of petrified cycadeoid plants, until it didn’t.

Capital Journal

A South Dakota mystery: Who stole the fossils from Fossil Cycad National Monument?

Wikipedia: Fossil Cycad National Monument

Spineless Wonders: a look into our world's deep and diverse past

Fossil Cycad National Monument

Wonders and Marvels: Why You Will Never Visit the Petrified Cycad Forest National Monument

National Monuments in Danger

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

"Delisted" by the NPS: Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area

Firehole Canyon Formations
Firehole Canyon Campground. Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Wyoming.  August 12, 2014
Copyright © 2017 A. F. Litt, All Rights Reserved

National Monuments in Danger

To comment on the marine monument and sanctuary review process 
(Due August 14, 2017):

For the last couple of days, I've been doing a lot of research on the 11 National Monuments that have been abolished since the creation of the first monument, Devils Tower, in 1906. With the review process moving along on the 27 monuments currently in danger of reduction or elimination, I figured that it would be nice to have some historical context to put all of this in.

While working on that research, I discovered some great information on 23 or 24 units, depending on the source, of the National Park Service (NPS) system that were "delisted" from 1916 through 1991. For the sake of providing additional historical context to the current debates over the 27 monuments, I will be sharing some material about these other sites over the next couple of months.

As I wrote in a post a few days ago, this is all a part of the evolution of this project. While the primary focus, for now, will remain on the 27 monuments under review, I foresee this project expanding over time to cover many different issues with our national parks, monuments, and other protected areas. Already, today, I've expanded the project website quite a bit, and more changes are on their way.

So today's post is not on one of the 27 monuments, but on a National Recreation Area.  It is a former NPS site that was transferred by Congress to the U. S. Forest Service (USFS) in 1968.

Consistent with a departmental policy of reducing joint administrations, the USNPS withdrew in 1968, and the USFS administers the entire area today...   The former USNPS portion, north of the Unita Mountains, is characterized by rolling sagebrush rangelands sloping gently west from the shore of the reservoir, and by more abrupt relief to the east. The picturesque Firehole Canyon is part of this area.  Campground and boat launch facilities were developed by the USNPS at several sites, including Lucerne Valley on the western shore and Antelope Flat on the eastern.  

-- Alen K. Hogenauer 

The dam and reservoir system is managed by the Department of Reclamation, and an administrative agreement was signed on July 22, 1963 with the NPS regarding the recreational management of the lake. In this way, an article from National Parks Traveler explains, "without a Congressional mandate – there was no specific act of Congress -- Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area became a unit of the National Park System."

However, at the time, the NPS was actually trying to become less involved with the management of reservoirs, and saw this as little more than a brief "custodial arrangement not destined to last any longer than it had to." The NRA was only a part of the National Park System for five years because of this, and on October 1, 1968, Congress passed the responsibility of the NRA to the USFS' Ashley National Forest.

Other reservoirs the NPS unburdened themselves of include portions of the Shasta Lake National Recreation Area in 1948, the Shadow Mountain National Recreation Area in 1979, both of which passed to the USFS, the Lake Texoma National Recreation Area which passed to the U. S. Army Corps. of Engineers in 1949, and the Millerton Lake National Recreation Area which passed to the State of California in 1957.

In the article's comments, there is a discussion among the readers about the Park Service's management of reservoirs, and almost everyone seems to agree with the Service's approach to this here.

One reader suggested that the deciding factor should be whether or not the park offered more than just "water-based recreation," suggesting that Recreation Areas like Glen Canyon, Lake Mead, and Ross Lake (part of the North Cascades National Park Complex) all seem like good fits for the NPS because "the surrounding holdings are extensive and worthy natural and cultural resources," while Recreation Areas like Lake Roosevelt, Lake Meredith, Amistad, and Curecanti may be better run by the USFS or the Army Corps of Engineers' "excellent public recreation operation."

Another reader pointed out, "The NPS apparently very much wants to keep Curecanti NRA, and currently has a plan out for public comment that would expand Curecanti and calls on Congress to officially designate the NPS manager of the public land surrounding Curecanti's three reservoirs."

Personally, I'd hate to see Lake Roosevelt go away.  That was my local park growing up and where my love of the national parks first got started.

Of course, this is all just idle musings... There is no movement I know of looking at delisting any of the National Recreation Areas.

Ultimately, though, Flaming Gorge remains a National Recreation area, it's status has not changed, just the management.  It was not abolished, it just changed hands.  Unfortunately, with the 27 monuments, being a part of the National Park Service system is really only a factor for Katahdin Woods, the core of Craters of the Moon, and the Parashant section of Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument.  The rest of the monuments are not facing delisting by the Park Service, they are looking at the loss of National Monument status completely.

But it is interesting to note, all of the 11 National Monuments that were abolished had their status removed by Congress.  With Flaming Gorge, even just the change in management required Congressional action.  This suggests that the President does not have to power to unilaterally change our monuments, though I suspect that he will try.

If he does, it may be a long slog through the courts before any of these issues are resolved.

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area

Wyoming / Utah
Established: October 22, 1963

324 Sq. Miles
USFS / NPS (Northern Portion)
NPS Withdrawal: October 1, 1968 by Congress

North Chimney Rock In Firehole Canyon (July 19, 2016)

National Monuments in Danger

To comment on the marine monument and sanctuary review process 
(Due August 14, 2017):

Video (By Others...)


National Parks Traveler

Pruning the Parks: Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area Was a National Park for Just Five Years



Flaming Gorge NRA:

Flaming Gorge Reservoir:

The George Wright Forum

Gone, But Not Forgotten: The Delisted Units of the U. S. National Park system (1991)

Green River, Flaming Gorge and Red Canyon: Historic 3D Photographs of Powell Survey 2nd Expedition 1871-2 (USGS)


About "Abolished" National Mouments