A New Scientific Study Bolsters the Argument for Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument

With less than two months until President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office, those pressuring President Barack Obama to designate the Greater Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument have a new scientific study on their side.

Conducted by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Conservation Science Partners, the study found that the 1.7 million acres of the proposed monument is one of the most ecologically significant undeveloped areas in the American West, and that, in the words of its authors, the area "presents an opportunity to conserve key elements of ecological function within the region and across the western U.S."

Building on past reports and studies about conservation, environmental resiliency, and ecological connectedness, the authors of this new report analyzed data and found that the proposed monument meets the criteria for an important conservation effort, as outlined in a 2014 study by one of the lead authors, Dr. Brett G. Dickson of Northern Arizona University.

"This analysis makes an irrefutable scientific case for protecting this area. Leaving this area unprotected could have severe consequences for clean drinking water, suitable wildlife habitat, and accessible recreation," assert the authors of a CAP article about the findings.

According to the study, designating the monument would, among other things, "substantially enhance regional resilience to climate change and support regional climate adaptation; increase regional potential to facilitate high levels of ecological connectivity and ecological intactness; and promote geological and ecological uniqueness of America's protected areas network."

What's more, the analysis "indicated that this area far exceeded other western landscapes of equivalent size, in terms of ecological connectivity and intactness, geophysical uniqueness, and richness of rare and irreplaceable species," the authors write.

All of which is to say, the study argues, if the president wants to designate another monument to preserve an important ecosystem, the area around the Grand Canyon is a solid choice.

The Grand Canyon Monument, as conceived and designed by Representative Raul Grijalva of Tucson and a coalition of five local tribes, would permanently protect 1.7 million acres of the Grand Canyon watershed while preserving public access for recreation, hunting, fishing, and some logging. The monument would also safeguard many culturally significant sites and native antiquities in the area by helping to ensure they're not sold off for or destroyed by development.

And perhaps most significantly, the monument would make permanent a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mines in the area that was declared in 2012. As New Times has written about extensively, the legacy of uranium mining near the Grand Canyon has been devastating to human health and the ecosystem.

Yet, when it comes to preservation and conservation in Arizona, there's strong opposition from a small minority of conservative Republicans and industry leaders, many of whom are certain Donald Trump will be sympathetic to their cause.

"I think they want to run out the clock and leave it in the hands of Trump," Grijalva tells New Times. "His stances on public land and protection are 360 degrees from where Obama's at."

Asked whether he has heard anything about White House action, a frustrated Grijalva says the federal government has been mum.

"My urgency now is getting an answer from [the Department of the] Interior. We've taken it as far as we can, and waiting for a bureaucratic answer from the Interior is what's holding this up. Getting no response from the Interior is horribly frustrating and not very respectful of what everybody put into this for the past two years," he says.

Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust echoes that sentiment: "A month ago, there was a serious conversation about scheduling a visit from the Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture, and White House staff — like they did with [the proposed Monument for] Bears Ears – that would include a public hearing. A couple of dates were suggested, things were being planned in terms of a venue to accommodate this public meeting, but that's now off the table. We don't know if it's postponed or canceled. There's no communication."

In an e-mail to New Times, a  DOI spokeswoman writes that "there is no public meeting currently scheduled with Interior participation on this proposal."

"What's at stake with the Trump administration shouldn't be lost on anyone," Clark says.

As advocates and opponents of the monument await an answer from Washington, a war of facts vs. propaganda continues to rage on the ground.

In addition to the new study from the Center for American Politics, multiple bipartisan public-opinion polls have shown that the monument is overwhelmingly popular with the people of Arizona. But opponents, like Representative Paul Gosar of Prescott, are touting a different poll that shows the monument is unpopular.

Asked how one should reconcile the two polls, Grijalva says that as far as he's concerned, Gosar's poll has no credibility.

"That was not a poll, that was Gosar's campaign polling firm. We had a bipartisan polling firm. What Gosar did — we don't know what he did, we don't even know what questions were asked. It was a push poll intended to get what they got. We made sure that our polls were transparent and bipartisan. Gosar has not done that."
Public support is not the problem, Grijalva continues. "The issue that we're up against a very well-funded industry that wants to run the clock on this friendly administration."

It has been reported that the billionaire Koch brothers are helping to support the opposition.

"President Barack Obama's environmental legacy is strong but not permanent," Grijalva is quoted as saying in a press release announcing the CAP study. "This administration took important steps to temporarily protect the Grand Canyon from uranium mining, but more needs to be done before President-elect Donald Trump takes office. Tribal nations in Arizona, New Mexico, and across the country — including the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona and the National Congress of American Indians — have asked for permanent protection for the Greater Grand Canyon area for years."

Grijalva goes on to say that the new study "clearly shows — as if we needed further evidence — that we need to honor their requests. These findings are consistent with the overwhelming local and national public support we see for protecting the Grand Canyon."

The public and scientific communities have spoken, he concludes — meaning the ball is now in Obama's court.