Questions and Answers on the
National Natural Landmarks Program
This article was originally published in The Land Rights Letter, February 1992.
Copyright © 1992, Erich Veyhl, All Rights Reserved
What is the National Natural Landmarks
The Landmarks program evaluates and
inventories "natural" areas ranging in
size from one to millions of acres, and
officially designates them as
"nationally significant." There are 587
"designated" Landmarks and over 3,000
more "potential" Landmarks in an open
ended "backlog," all encompassing over
60 million acres so far.
Who owns Landmarks?
Consideration of ownership is ignored in
inventorying Landmarks, which are based
on "ecological" areas. About half
include private owners; the rest are
already publicly controlled at some
What is the program used for?
The Landmark evaluation process is a
feeder program used to justify Federal,
State or Local acquisition and control
in order to preserve areas in a
primitive state. The government tells
the public that the program entails no
restrictions on land use, claiming the
program is to "honor" landowners who
volunteer to preserve their land. Such
cooperation, where it exists, is used to
buy time while the National Park Service
(NPS) and preservationists lobby for
more direct control or acquisition. The
National Parks and Conservation
Association calls Landmarks "Ladies In
How do they get control of the land?
The Landmarks program provides
inventories and assessments used by
other units and levels of government to
justify taking control; it does not yet
directly acquire or control land itself.
The NPS seeks political action on
"damaged" or "threatened" Landmarks
through annual reports to Congress. It
also uses Landmark evaluations, for both
"designated" and "potential" sites, in
what it calls the "reconnaissance" phase
of planning new areas for National Park
Landmark evaluations are also used to
justify acquisition or condemnation by
other agencies. Claims of "national
significance" in evaluations are used
politically to block permits required
for land use and to influence
restrictive zoning on the local and
state levels. Use of Landmarks is
affected by the National Environmental
Policy Act, the Mining in National Parks
Act, and the Coastal Zone Management
Act. Preservationists and the NPS are
lobbying for increased funding for
acquisition and for the National
Heritage Conservation Act granting
direct Federal and State control over
sites declared to be "significant,"
together with buffer zones around them.
NPS considers Landmarks to be "damaged"
or "threatened", and therefore in need
of intervention, if it suspects their
natural features are or might be
affected "by human activity,
intervention, or intrusion."
Who runs the Landmarks program?
The Landmarks program has been run since
1961 by a small group in the NPS in
collaboration with State and private
preservationists, such as the Nature
Conservancy, who make most of the
decisions and write the evaluations.
The Federal bureaucracy designates the
sites they choose as "nationally
significant" and maintains the files.
The program is thus a mechanism for
preservationist activists seeking an
official sanction -- via the official
acceptance of environmentalist "studies"
and arbitrary administrative decisions
of "national significance" -- for
subsequent government control over other
Who are these people accountable to?
The Secretary of the Interior routinely
approves the decisions by the NPS
bureaucracy, which are based on the
evaluations, covert monitoring and
suggestions for new sites by
environmental activists, euphemistically
called "scientists." In 1990 the
National Park Service Advisory Board was
authorized to advise on new
designations, but has no authority.
Congress or other elected
representatives have no role, and the
NPS ignores landowner objections. The
program ran until 1980 with no
regulations at all, and since then has
frequently been caught ignoring them.
Where do they get the authority to do
There is no legislation authorizing the
program, which started in 1961 in
collaboration with The Nature
Conservancy. The NPS claims authority
under a memo of approval it requested
from the Secretary of the Interior in
1962, and under the 1935 Historic Sites
Act. NPS claims that natural areas
qualify as "objects" under the Act's
reference to authority "to preserve for
public use historic sites, buildings and
objects of national significance."
There is implicit Congressional sanction
through references to the program and
ongoing appropriations of funds. The
Landmarks Program first wrote
regulations for itself in 1980 (36 CFR
How much money do they spend on this?
No one knows the total expenses since
funding and personnel are quietly
transferred from other NPS programs
off-budget. The program also exploits
funding for State Heritage Programs,
which act as surrogates for NPS, and
there is evidence that funds are
channeled through The Nature
Conservancy. Congress directly
appropriated $.9 million for 1992, a 5
1/2 fold increase over the previous
How are sites chosen? What is "national
Preservationists choose the sites as the
ones they like the best. NPS has
subjective criteria for "national
significance" which are broad enough to
encompass almost any politically
motivated identification of natural
features. Sites are supposed to
represent the best examples of "natural
themes" represented within 35 ecological
"Provinces" mapped without regard to
State or other political boundaries.
Selections are claimed to be
"scientific" because environmentalists
make the decisions.
Can you prevent the government from
putting your land into this program?
First you have to know that you are
targeted. The NPS told Sen. Cohen
(R-ME) in 1989 that it would "cease
processing" any site as soon as it
learns of landowner objections, but then
refused to stop when landowners in Maine
objected. NPS also told the Inspector
General in 1991 that an evaluation would
require landowner consent under new
regulations. New regulations proposed
in Nov. 1991, however, say the program
will not "designate" land as part of an
official "Landmark" without owner
consent, but that under a double listing
scheme they will continue to evaluate
and designate sites as "nationally
significant" in the Landmarks program
regardless of owner consent. The
procedures are being publicly challenged
How do you know if your land is
If evaluators sense potential
opposition, you usually aren't told.
After 1980, the regulations required
written notification of owners before an
evaluation of their land begins, and at
two additional points in the process.
Following public criticism of illegal
secret evaluations, however, an Interior
Inspector General audit reported in
Dec. 1991 that the regulations are
frequently ignored. NPS maintains a
"Centralized Computer Listing" of
targeted sites, but ownership and size
statistics are understated. Names of
owners are sometimes listed in
evaluation reports, but NPS does not
know who all the owners are and has
maneuvered to block access to its lists
under Freedom of Information Act
Hasn't anyone complained?
Public complaints following the
discovery of secret and unwanted
Landmark evaluations in 1988 led to a
national moratorium on the program in
Nov. 1989 when Sens. Cohen and Mitchell
demanded an immediate review of program
irregularities. Journalists such as
national environmental columnist Alston
Chase, the Better Government Association
of Chicago, and the TV documentary
produced by Preview Media have exposed
the program. The Interior Inspector
General concluded in its Dec. 1991
report that "The property rights of over
2,800 private landowners may have been
infringed upon because the Park Service
did not properly conduct the evaluation,
nomination, and designation processes."
Congress, however, naively believes NPS
assurances that it only needs more money
-- and continues to provide it.
What Can You Do?
The Federal bureaucracy and its
environmentalist surrogates have an
empire building "mission" mentality to
control every so-called "significant"
region in the nation. They will
continue to ignore and abuse the civil
rights of landowners until Congress
reigns them in. That won't happen until
enough members of Congress see their
-- Most Congressmen do not yet realize
there is a problem, partly because they
naively believe NPS and preservationist
whitewashes of National Park Service
abuses. YOUR CONGRESSMEN NEED TO HEAR
your views so that they realize there is
-- Written COMMENTS on the NPS's
PROPOSED NEW REGULATIONS are due by
Feb. 19, 1992. Send comments to NPS at
PO Box 37127, Washington, DC 20013-7127.
Call NPS at (202) 343-8129 for a copy of
[Note - September 1999: After a storm of protest nationwide against
the proposed regulations they were quietly shelved with no comment
from the government. After waiting for seven years for the
controversy to die down, in May 1999 the Clinton-Gore Administration
formally released the regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations
with no announcement or public comments allowed and openly reactivated
the National Natural Landmarks Program. Despite the protests, the new
regulations are substantially the same as those proposed in 1992.]
-- For the INSPECTOR GENERAL Dec. 1991 report (92-I-204) on
Landmarks call IG at (202) 343-8129.
Also see Land Rights Letter issues of
February 1991, August 1991
and January 1992.