San Juan Islands Sunset. Photo: Wikimedia

By: Eugene Buchanan

On Monday, March 25 under the Antiquities Act, President Barack Obama recently designated five new national monuments encompassing more than 240,000 acres. Of particular interest to paddlers in the legislation is the creation of the new San Juan Islands National Monument in Washington.

The four other areas named national monuments are the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico; First State National Monument in Delaware; Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monumentin Maryland; and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio.

"These sites honor the pioneering heroes, spectacular landscapes and rich history that have shaped our extraordinary country,” President Obama said. “By designating these national monuments today, we will ensure they will continue to inspire and be enjoyed by generations of Americans to come."

As well as pleasing paddlers, the move also gained approval from environmental groups. "We commend President Obama for his vision in protecting five new national monuments that will safeguard historic, cultural and natural treasures for future generations," says American Rivers president Bob Irvin. "Two of the monuments, the First State National Monument in Delaware and Pennsylvania and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico, honor the importance of rivers to our nation's history, culture and environment."

The Harriet Tubman site, located in Dorchester County, Md., on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, honors the African-American abolitionist who directed a secret network of safe houses to move slaves to freedom in the North, a key stop on the Underground Railroad. The Charles Young site honors Col. Charles Young, an officer in the United States Army who was the third black to graduate from West Point and first to achieve a colonel ranking. He later became a professor of military science at Wilberforce University

While these two sites have history buffs cheering, the other three have paddlers celebrating. Here's why:

First State National Monument, Delaware
This newly designated national monument Includes 1,100 acres of land in the Brandywine Valley along the Delaware-Pennsylvania border that was originally acquired by William Penn from the Duke of York in 1682. But its river offerings that paddlers and others cherish. "This river couldn't be more deserving of protection," says Amy Kober of American Rivers. "It protects land along the Brandywine River in Delaware and Pennsylvania, and the river has had a role in everything from the American Revolution to inspiring generations of artists. It's a beautiful natural landscape."

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
This stretch of the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico 28 miles north of Taos near the Colorado border offers everything its national park-protected sibling Big Bend does and more, including a beautiful river gorge to pre-historic artwork dating back 11,000 years. "New Mexico's Rio Grande is known for its scenery, whitewater boating and fishing," says AR's Kober. "It's also critical habitat for bear, cougar, elk, and a host of migratory birds, and home to thousands of archeological sites. The national monument designation will ensure these treasures will be preserved."

San Juan Islands National Monument, Washington
For paddlers, this is the real crown jewel. The San Juans offer some of the best sea kayaking in the states, if not the world, from Friday and Roche harbors on San Juan Island to Eastsound on Orcas Island, Haro Strait, and more. No matter where you go, expect plenty of wildlife; there's no better place to paddle with whales (as well as Dall's porpoise, river otter and harbor seals), thanks the nutrient-rich waters of Haro Strait. Three pods totaling about 84 orcas forage through the boundary water straits every summer during their migrations (launch from Snug Harbor in Mitchell Bay toward Deadman's Cove). Just don't get too close. The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires boaters to avoid approaches closer than 100 feet of all whales.