The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently published its annual list of the most endangered historical places in the country, and it included two sites in Arizona: the Grand Canyon and Oak Flat.
The Grand Canyon, and the adjacent 1.7 million acres of its watershed, face threats from mining, development, deforestation, and ecological destruction—the drinking water supply for 25 million people is also at stake, according to the group Environment Arizona. Protecting this area is at the heart a major federal lawsuit, as well as a national effort to get President Obama to designate it a national monument.
Oak Flat is part of the Tonto National Forest and is an important religious and cultural spot for many Native American tribes, particularly the San Carlos Apache. Oak Flat also sits above a massive deposit of copper ore, which mining companies have been attempting to get their hands on for decades. Until recently, every attempt to pass a land exchange bill has failed, but Congressional leaders included a last-minute rider sanctioning the exchange in this year's Defense Bill, thereby opening the area to mining.
The public outcry after the bill passed was huge, and a group of devoted activists led by San Carlos Apache leader Windsler Noise have vowed to occupy a part of the campground until the exchange is repealed. (The group is currently taking its fight to D.C., and is planning a two-day rally during July.)
Sandy Bahr, president of the Arizona Chapter of the Sierra Club believes that including these two sites on the list “shows how important these areas are, and how significant the threats are.” But what’s unfortunate, she adds, is “that our own Senators don’t recognize the significance of places like Oak Flat, nor are they stepping up to help protect the Grand Canyon.”
“I think it’s great that these two really important places in Arizona are getting some attention,” says Randy Serraglio, the southwest conservation advocate at The Center for Biological Diversity. “A lot of Americans really value historical places and their significance.” By being included on this list, these issues are able to reach “a different audience, an audience beyond what environmental groups have traditionally commanded,” and can help move the preservation fight beyond “the usual argument between environmentalists and the people who want to develop these places.”
Serraglio believes its especially heartening to see Oak Flat on this list—“the Grand Canyon always gets all sorts of attention,” he says, “but Oak Flat is a truly sacred place. Its significance predates European settlement...It’s wonderful to see a place [like this] receive this kind of attention and consideration from the trust…It’s a part of our history that’s long been ignored and undervalued.”
Both he and Bahr believe that getting included on Trust’s lists is not simply symbolic, but rather, will go a long way in helping to preserve the areas.
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It’s great that “people across the country recognize the threats to these areas,” says Bahr. But “what we really need are some of our elected officials—our so-called ‘leaders’—to step up and take action, to help address the threats, and to help protect these special places.
“I mean, if you can’t protect the Grand Canyon, what can you protect?”
Editor's note: This story has been updated since its original publication.