Obama Will Not Declare Grand Canyon Monument — But Supporters Vow to Continue the Fight

Obama Will Not Declare Grand Canyon Monument — But Supporters Vow to Continue the Fight
Miriam Wasser
Rep. Raul Grijalva announced in a written statement today that he has received word from the White House that President Barack Obama does not plan to designate the Greater Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument in the few days he has left in office.

"I can only express my profound disappointment," Grijalva wrote. “The Grand Canyon is one of the world's most iconic and popular natural places, not just for its beauty but for its importance to tribal culture and history."

The proposed 1.7-million-acre monument would have permanently protected the fragile ecosystem of the Grand Canyon watershed from uranium mining and some old-growth logging, and given the five local tribes in the area greater control over managing the area. The monument proposal fared favorably in multiple public-opinion polls, both in Arizona and throughout the nation.

As New Times detailed earlier today, because the area is so important – the Grand Canyon is, after all, considered the "crowned jewel" of our national park system — supporters of the monument remained optimistic until the very last moment, even after Obama designated two other monuments last week.

But Grijalva's announcement put an end to any hope that the president would take action. In his statement, Grijalva chides the current administration for its willingness "to leave the future of the Grand Canyon and the health of Arizona tribes up to Donald Trump."

"Failing to permanently protect the surrounding watershed of the Grand Canyon from toxic uranium mining leaves a gap in the conservation legacy of the president," Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity stated in a press release. "Few places are more deserving of protection than the landscape surrounding the Grand Canyon."  
"On behalf of all Hopi'sinom (the Hopi People) I must express my profound disappointment in President Obama's failure to designate the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument today," Hopi Tribal Council Chairman Herman Honanie said in a press release. "It must be stated for the record that this failure to act demonstrates a lack of simple, fundamental respect and reverence of this significant cultural and geographical landmark.

"The Grand Canyon is considered a place of origin, a spiritual home and sanctuary of cultural tradition," Honanie's statement continues. "Within the Grand Canyon, Hopi ancestors left behind tangible proof of their existence; monument designation or not, our footprints will remain. Whether it is the uranium mining industry or the proposed Navajo Escalade Project, the Hopi People remain committed to opposing all harmful commercial interests dedicated toward the exploitation of the Grand Canyon."

Like Honanie, other supporters of the monument say today's announcement may be a setback, but it isn't a death knell for the monument.

In his statement announcing Obama's decision, Grijalva stated his intention to reintroduce a bill into Congress that would create the monument. He has done it before, but with fierce opposition from Arizona's Republican Congressional leaders, it was essentially dead on arrival.

It remains to be seen whether Grijalva will have any more success this time around, but he has already begun mobilizing supporters.

"The need to protect the Grand Canyon is bigger than who is president or who sits in Congress," Grijalva wrote in his statement. "The American people demand that this important place be preserved. People from all walks of life have been fighting this fight for a long time, and we're going to keep working until we get it done."

At stake, should the legislative monument effort fail, is the future of a temporary Obama-era moratorium on new uranium mines near the Grand Canyon. Established in 2012, the moratorium is set to last only 20 years, though a new president could begin the process of dismantling it much sooner than that.
"We are still surviving the debilitating effects of uranium extraction on our tribal lands and vast sections of our nation are contaminated from more than five hundred abandoned uranium mines that were never properly cleaned by the government and the private mining industry," Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "We cannot continue to suffer the consequences of uranium contaminating our water sources and land while mining companies profit off the lives of Navajo people."

Decades of uranium mining along the rim of the Grand Canyon has spread radioactive dust throughout the area and polluted critical land and drinking water sources for local tribes, which is why at the heart of the monument proposal was the strong desire to prevent uranium mining in the area once and for all.

"Today is the first day of an era where the temporary mineral withdrawal around Grand Canyon is officially endangered," Ethan Aumack, conservation director of the Grand Canyon Trust, writes in an email to New Times. "Over 3,000 uranium mining claims around Grand Canyon are now one step closer to being freed up for development."

But now, with the Obama administration's announcement, Aumack says he and others are preparing themselves for the inevitable: a decision on the part of the Trump administration to pander to the mining industry by beginning the process of scrapping the moratorium.  "The Havasupai people are on the verge of human extinction due to massive uranium development on the rims of the Grand Canyon. As the original people of this country, we are the most targeted by international mining companies who come into our territories and contaminate our waters and homes," says Havasupai Councilwoman Carletta Tilousi, one of the most outspoken advocates for the monument.

"We are very disappointed in the Obama administration for failing to protect the Grand Canyon," Tilousi adds.

It's unclear why the Obama administration decided not to create the monument, or at least hold a public meeting about the proposed monument as it did for Bears Ears, which became a monument last week.

In an email to New Times, a media representative from the White House writes that the White House has no announcement regarding the Grand Canyon Monument at this time.
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser