One Week After Obama Created Two New Monuments, Supporters of Grand Canyon Monument Remain Optimistic

Update 1/6/17 12:10 p.m.: Rep. Raul Grijalva released a statement today announcing that President Obama will not designate the monument. Read that story here.

Original story continues below:

With just over two weeks left in President Barack Obama's term, supporters of the proposed Greater Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument refuse to give up hope that the area will be given monument status before he leaves office.

It's not uncommon for out-going presidents to make last-minute declarations – former President Bill Clinton designated a few monuments in his last month in office — but Obama made two big monument designations last week in Utah and Nevada, which begs the question: does he have another one in him?

"We're still optimistic that he'll do it," says Sandy Bahr, director of the Arizona Sierra Club, noting that Obama has so far designated 29 monuments, more than any other president in history.

"It'd be a great part of his legacy to be one of several presidents who stepped up to protect Grand Canyon, starting with Theodore Roosevelt who first protected Grand Canyon itself as a monument," she adds.

"It's still on the table, it's still being considered," agrees Kelly Burke, executive director of the Grand Canyon Wild Lands Council, a nonprofit that works closely with businesses to promote conservation. She, like Bahr, says that because the Grand Canyon is such an iconic and important ecological and cultural area, creating the monument would be, "a keystone piece, the crown jewel" of Obama's conservationist legacy.

Creating the monument would be "a keystone piece, the crown jewel" of Obama's conservationist legacy.

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The proposed monument would safeguard 1.7 million acres of land in the Grand Canyon watershed by protecting an important wildlife corridor and ecologically fragile area, permanently banning uranium mining, giving local tribes an important role in managing the area, and bolstering the local economy. Because it would do all of this without impacting recreation or the public's ability to access and enjoy the area, the plan is tremendously popular among Arizonans, local businesses, the outdoor industry, and the general American public – a bipartisan poll conducted in September 2016 found that 82 percent of the public supported the creation of the monument.

It's also incredibly important to local tribes, five of which coauthored the original plan for the monument with Rep. Raul Grijalva, Burke says. In the last two years, the tribes have played an integral role in promoting the monument and talking it up to legislative leaders.

"This area has such deep importance to the tribes, not just because of the land and all the cultural sites, but because it's the place where they come from — their origin story," she says. "All of these pieces come together: the social justice piece, the legacy, all of those things make this still very much under consideration."

Yet despite the monument's popularity, a small minority of politicians and interest groups in Arizona have put up a fierce fight. Led primarily by Rep. Paul Gosar, Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, and recently, Governor Doug Ducey, this group has all but defeated a legislative initiative to create the monument, and appears relentless in its drive to stop Obama from taking action.

As New Times has written about before, the opposition bases its argument on false or otherwise misleading information, and supporters believe the Obama administration can see through it. It's for this reason that the opposition doesn't seem to affect supporters' optimism. 

"It'd be a great part of his legacy to be one of several presidents who stepped up to protect Grand Canyon, starting with Theodore Roosevelt."

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What's more, Bahr says, the recently designated monuments in Utah and Nevada – Bears Ears and Gold Butte, respectively – also faced longstanding and considerable criticism from a similar coalition of Republican politicians and interest groups. 

Asked whether they were shocked that last weeks' monument designations didn't include Grand Canyon, both Bahr and Burke said they weren't particularly surprised because the U.S. Department of the Interior visited the two areas and held public listening sessions to hear the case for and against the monuments before making a decision, and that a meeting for the Grand Canyon monument has yet to be scheduled.

"Would we have liked Grand Canyon to have been included? Absolutely," Bahr says. "We, like everyone else, can see the clock ticking on this president, and we have no illusions that president-elect Trump will be a champion for protecting this area. We would have liked to have seen it but not surprised and we think there's still time, still a couple weeks to make it happen."

Burke agrees: "I was excited that he moved ahead with those monuments because it means there's still time for Grand Canyon, and they're still thinking about it… I think that they're very interested, and I think that they see the compelling reasons for it, which is why it's still on the table. But in terms of actual details, I expect we could hear something any day in terms of moving forward formally,"

"I was excited that he moved ahead with those monuments because it means there's still time for Grand Canyon."

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Multiple sources have told New Times that the administration has been in contact with local advocates about scheduling a meeting, but there's no date on the calendar yet.

"While we haven't heard anything more abut a public meeting, we would say that the public meeting has come to D.C .," Bahr says, noting that representatives from the tribes and public, as well as representatives from local businesses and government have taken their fight to the capital. What's more, at least 550,000 people have written letters to the administration asking for designation.

"The one thing I know about Arizonans is that consistently, they support public lands and the protection of public lands, especially Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, our elected officials are out of step on that, it's never quite made sense to me," Bahr says, adding that with the window of opportunity for monument designation quickly closing, "There are plenty of reasons for Obama to act. I think, 'Why wouldn't he?' is the key question."

Asked whether optimism is perhaps a little naïve at this point, Burke and Bahr dismiss the idea.

"I think everyone is looking forward with clear eyes," Burke says. "We're all going to be standing together to protect and preserve [Obama's] legacy moving forward, which I think he really see as a larger American legacy.

"This is really a historic moment," she adds. "Grand Canyon is really that kind of a place."
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser