Exhibits: The Lands: National Landscape Conservation System
National Monuments are designated to protect objects of scientific and historic interest by public proclamation by the President (under the Antiquities Act of 1906) or by Congress for historic landmarks, historic, and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest on public lands.
An Explosive Past
A great serpent who lived in the mountains was angered by lightning, and in his anger, coiled around and around the mountain, as if to strike. The great serpent coiled so tightly that he crushed the mountain, and the rocks began to crumble and melt, spitting flames and liquid rock, until the entire mountain exploded and covered the plain.
So goes the legend of the Northern Shoshone, who witnessed the most recent volcanic activity which created the 50-mile long lava flows of Craters of the Moon National Monument. Today we understand that the Great Rift, which cuts into the Snake River Plain of southeastern Idaho, allowed innumerable basaltic lava flows to emerge over a period of 13,000 years and spread across the plains. The flows ceased about 2100 years ago, and the area is now considered dormant, which means it may become active again.
The relatively recent activity at Craters of the Moon presents an unparalleled study of basaltic volcanism. Nearly every kind of lava formation can be seen in this vast field, including lava tubes, huge caves, spatter cones, calderas, and kipukas, which are areas of ancient lava flow surrounded by more recent flows, creating islands of vegetation. The types of lava include the sharp and dangerous a'a, the ropy pahoehoe, and lava "bombs" which formed when large drops of lava quickly cooled where they fell. Some flows exhibit unusual green and blue coloring, due to a slightly different mineral content in the lava.
People at Craters of the Moon
The Northern Shoshone never maintained permanent settlements on the lava fields, but there is plenty of evidence that they migrated regularly across the flows, hunting wildlife on the kipukas, and constructed large rings of stones 10 to 20 feet in diameter, possibly for ceremonial use.
American homesteaders generally avoided this waterless and stony area, although a few groups used it as a cutoff from the Oregon Trail to reach the gold fields on the Salmon River. In the early 1920s, a local taxidermist named Robert Linden explored the entire area on foot, taking hundreds of pictures as he catalogued the formations, the wildlife, and the vegetation. He published his findings in National Geographic, calling upon President Coolidge to protect this unique geologic resource within the national park system. Within a few years, more scientists supported this campaign, and in 1924, Coolidge designated Craters of the Moon National Monument, using Linden's fanciful name. The original monument was expanded in 1976 to include the Craters of the Moon Wilderness. In 2000, President Clinton again enlarged the boundaries, this time by about 661,000 acres, so the entire monument covers about 700,000 acres, or over 1000 square miles.
Visiting the Monument
Today's visitor can choose to stick to the developed areas of the monument, managed primarily by the National Park Service, or explore the vast and undeveloped backcountry, managed mostly by the Bureau of Land Management. The developed area includes a visitor center, campground, and trails and roads variously accessible to passenger cars, mountain bikes, hikers, and wheelchairs.
The wilderness is accessible only by foot, and requires a free backcountry permit. The backcountry, which includes the recent expansion, offers a few four-wheel drive roads for the adventurous driver (with good tires!), and unlimited opportunity for cross-country exploration, caving, dispersed camping, and geologic discovery. This area is also managed for multiple uses: both hunting and grazing are permitted in the backcountry.
On arrival to this rocky land, a visitor may agree with the pioneers of 150 years ago, that this is a blasted, desolate country, devoid of life. A closer look reveals a wide variety of ecosystems, which support hundreds of different species. Richly varied wildflowers grow in cracks which have filled with soil. Sagebrush and upland grasses have taken hold where the soil is a bit deeper, and the oldest lava flows support forests of Douglas fir and aspen. Mule deer flourish here, as do coyotes, badgers, foxes, various small rodents, and numerous birds, from songbirds to raptors. The kipukas are particularly rich with life, supporting relic ancient juniper trees and relic sagebrush populations which shelter the sensitive sage grouse.
As sturdy as this landscape appears, the formations are actually quite fragile. Hikers have worn deep scars into the sides of many cinder cones, and unwitting travelers have spread the seeds of noxious weeds which threaten the native plants. When you visit Craters of the Moon, stay on designated roads and trails, and avoid fracturing delicate formations or disturbing the plant and animal life.
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