I’ve you’ve ever wondered about what the difference is between a US national park and a US national monument, or even if there is a difference, you aren’t alone. Many other people have wondered the same thing. There is a difference, though.
Very generally speaking, a US national park is land that has been set aside and is protected due to scenic significance. A US national monument is land that has been set aside and is protected because it has historical significance.
That is just defining each in simple terms. There is much more to it than that. One big difference is that national monuments are put into place by the signature of the President of the United States. Once the president decrees that an area is a national monument, it comes under the protection of the US Park Service and the plants, animals, land, and artifacts cannot be exploited.
The flora, fauna, geology, and artifacts of a national park are also protected by law against exploitation and the US Park Service also administers and maintains the parks. However, for land to be set aside as a national park, it must be made law through the Congress of the United States. In other words, it only takes one person to create a national monument, but it requires passage through the 400+ members of Congress before a national park can be created.
This can create considerable confusion for people who don’t know this. Many current national parks were originally national monuments. For example, Arches, Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce are all national parks now. They were all national monuments, previously. This stands to reason. It doesn’t take much time to get the signature of a sympathetic president. It can take a great deal of time to get the approval of Congress, even if it is also sympathetic.
This is easy to see. In 1929, then president Hoover signed the documents that created Arches National Monument. It took until 1971 before Congress turned Arches into a national park. A lot could have happened in those 42 years had Hoover not assured protection by making the land a national monument.
Due to how they are created, this also means that a president can increase or decrease the size of existing national monuments and the president can even abolish a national monument if he so chooses. Once a national park is created, though, it is law. Only Congress can overturn a federal law, although the Supreme Court can deem a law unconstitutional, which would rarely apply to a national park.
What it boils down to is this. Though it is true that national monuments primarily have historical significance and national parks have mostly scenic and natural significance, the main difference is that the president can create a national monument. He cannot create a national park. For land to become a national park requires the passage of a law through the legislative branch of government, which can be a lengthy process.
Technically speaking, anything administered by the US Park Service is a national park. Most of these sites also have both scenic and historic significance. However, the difference between the two is really in how they were legally created.