(Photo credit: Devils Tower, courtesy Matthew Paulson, Flickr Creative Commons)
As I never visited the States as a boy, all my childhood impressions of the American landscape were formed via TV or the big screen. One of my most vivid memories of the weird magnificence of that landscape comes from the 1977 Steven Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfuss plays a guy who has seen a UFO and remains haunted by the experience. There’s a classic scene in the film when, at the dinner table with his family, Dreyfuss starts playing with a bowl of mashed potatoes, using a spoon and a fork to carve the white mash into a strange formation. He eventually stops as he realizes that his family is looking at him as if he’s crazy. He breaks down with emotion, but struggles through the tears and says, pointing at his mashed creation on the plate, “This means something. This is important.” In the film that pile of mash represents a very special location where the climax of the film plays out. It’s is a real place, called Devils Tower. It’s a geologic oddity jutting out of the Wyoming prairie. That scene, and the film, and the tower itself, all stuck in my mind for many years afterwards. So it was a thrill to stop and see the real thing when we were driving across country a few years ago.
Devils Tower is a massive chunk of igneous rock, some 65 millions years old. It’s a weird protrusion of the nearby Black Hills (also known as the home of Mount Rushmore and the Sturgis bike rally). The site is sacred to the Lakota and other local Native American tribes. In fact, the Indian connection is what helped to have the site protected, thanks to Theodore Roosevelt.
The tower, together with about 1,000 adjoining acres, holds the distinction of being the country’s very first national monument, designated as such by President Roosevelt on October 24, 1906. He used the powers granted to him under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which enables the President to set aside certain defined areas of land already under federal ownership and to protect those lands from commercial development. The initial impetus was to find a way to preserve ancient Indian artifacts and archeological remains under threat of desecration. But the act’s language widened the definition of appropriate designations, allowing sites to be created in the name of protecting “objects of historic and scientific interest.” The procedure basically enables fast-track federal protection of public lands by presidential fiat, without going through the much lengthier and more tedious Congressional process of creating national parks. Today there are more than 100 national monuments, most (but not all) of which are run by the National Park Service. Some of today’s national parks—including, most famously, the Grand Canyon—started out as national monuments and were “saved” from commercial development before becoming national parks in later years.
It’s easy to see why Devils Tower should have been protected. The tower looks awesome—in the true sense of that word. There’s really nothing else like it. It is made of hard igneous rock, exposed to the elements after softer surrounding sedimentary rock—mostly shale and sandstone—had been eroded away over the millennia. That process is what has given the tower those striking vertical striations, just like the marks Richard Dreyfuss left with his fork on that big pile of mash. There’s an oval-shaped mesa around the base of the tower, which leads many geologists to think the site is a remnant of an ancient volcano (though no-one’s sure). The whole thing rises 1,267 feet above the surrounding landscape. Apparently it’s become more popular in recent years for rock climbers to make their way to the top of the tower. It’s a bit of a climb just to get to the base, and that’s as far as I got during my visit. But that was impressive enough, looking straight up at that huge piece of rock towering over us.
There is a National Park Service visitor center near the tower, and there are ranger-led tours and talks during the summer. There’s even an evening ranger talk for those who are staying overnight at one of the nearby campgrounds. Sadly, we did not avail ourselves of these opportunities when we were driving through. Next time, definitely. A return to Devils Tower is on my bucket list—to be preceded by another viewing of Close Encounters.
Finally, for those who care, a word on the administration of the country’s national monuments. According to Wikipedia, of the 103 currently in existence, almost four-fifths are run by the National Park Service. But a few each are operated by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. One is administered co-operatively by the Defense Department and the National Trust for Historic Preservation; and one more is run by the Fish and Wildlife Service together with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
Devils Tower National Monument. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/deto/index.htm
List of National Monuments of the United States. Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_National_Monuments_of_the_United_States