With a bill to ban uranium mining near the Grand Canyon all but dead in the U.S. House of Representatives, supporters of the effort are shifting gears and moving to Plan B: Trying to get President Barack Obama to use his executive authority to do it by designating the 1.7-million-acre area a national monument.
In both an op-ed in the prominent Washington D.C. newspaper, The Hill, and at a press conference in the capital this week, a coalition of local tribal leaders joined Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva to talk to White House staff about the importance of their monument proposal.
“We, the people of the Havasupai, Hopi, and Zuni tribes, the Hualapai Nation, the Navajo Nation, and other tribes, know the Grand Canyon as a place of internationally recognized beauty and unparalleled conservation value,” they explained, but it’s “under siege” by mining interests:
“For decades, uranium mining — first within Grand Canyon National Park, then just outside its boundaries — has marred our canyon home [and] left a toxic legacy – poisoning our waters, our homes, our families, and our children,” they added.
In both forums, the leaders also discussed why the land is historically and culturally sacred and then made a plea to the White House to protect the area for future generations:
“In the waning days of your administration, we call on you, Mr. President, to do what is right for Grand Canyon, for the people and cultures that depend on Grand Canyon, and for the American people as a whole: designate the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument.”
Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court three times, the president is able to unilaterally award protection to an area by declaring it a monument.
President Barack Obama has so far created more monuments and protected more acres of land than any other president – a trend that has drawn applause from environmentalists and historical preservationists, but ire from his critics.
Though debate over whether to protect the Grand Canyon watershed has been brewing for years, it’s heated up hugely in recent months as both sides have become more vocal about its perceived popularity and the economic and environmental impact it would have.
The monument’s main opponents are Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar and U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. All three, but primarily Gosar, like to bash the proposal with information Grijalva says is inaccurate.
“[Gosar’s] opposition is based on myths,” Grijalva told New Times. “He needs to own up to the fact that he’s on the fringe of every public-land argument we have in this country.”
Recent independent reports found that the monument would generate about $51 million a year for the northern Arizona economy and is supported by 80 percent of Arizonans.
Gosar’s opposition is “about mining [interests], in general, and uranium mining specifically,” Grijalva added. “Gosar has been [the mining industry’s] water boy since the time he’s got into Congress … He might try to disguise it, but that’s the water he’s carrying. And to me, it’s a threat to the Grand Canyon’s existence.”
The exact and total impact of uranium mining in the area is unknown, but that hasn’t stopped pro- and anti-mining interests from arguing about it — mining companies like Energy Fuels say any uranium contamination occurs naturally in the area, while tribes and environmental groups say it's clearly a product of mining.
Those who support the monument say they have reason to be optimistic about Obama’s sympathy for the cause, as his administration made a very bold move in 2012 by placing a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mining claims in the Grand Canyon watershed.
Like Grijalva, many of these same tribal leaders visiting Washington this week were strong supporters of the measure and say they hope the president will make the moratorium permanent by declaring the national monument.
“President Obama, come stand with us and support the Greater Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument,” Jackson Brossy of the Navajo Nation said at the press conference.
Others, like a Havasupai Tribal councilwoman and vocal advocate for the monument, Carletta Tilousi, called on the president to help protect this ecologically and culturally significant area from uranium mining.
Advocates struck a similar note when they wrote in their op-ed that uranium mining has “a disastrous history and the potential to create irreversible damage to our home, our sacred lands, and a world treasure.”
Grijalva characterizes monument status as a measure that “permanently protects the Grand Canyon from new uranium mining claims; protects tribal sacred cultural sites; promotes a more collaborative regional approach between tribal nations and federal land managers; protects commercial and recreational hunting; preserves grazing and water rights; and conserves the Grand Canyon watershed."
He and others would like Congress to take action, but, as he told Cronkite News after the press conference, given strong Republican opposition, it's nearly impossible to “get a real, honest hearing on” the bill.
“It’s not going to happen,” he added, but “I think Mr. Gosar, Mr. McCain, and Mr. Flake are on the wrong side of the angels on this one.”