Action needed to protect Greater Grand Canyon region from uranium mining
The Grand Canyon may be the quintessential American landscape, a sight that stirs frontier yearnings in even the most jaded city-dweller. So why would someone ruin it by mining uranium right next door?
Shockingly, that has already happened…and if we don’t take action soon, it could get even worse. Existing uranium mines and outstanding uranium claims clustered immediately to the northwest and southeast of Grand Canyon National Park threaten to spoil the region’s air and water. Evidence suggests that some waterways within the Grand Canyon watershed — and even within the Grand Canyon itself — have already been contaminated, posing a toxic risk to nearby communities’ drinking water.
Currently, there is a moratorium on new mining in the area. But unless the Grand Canyon watershed gains new protections, this could be overturned by a future presidential administration.
A new proposal could help put a stop to this, retaining the wild character and cultural significance of the land by permanently protecting 1.7 million acres of tribal homeland around the Grand Canyon.
The proposed protections would bridge land between the Grand Canyon and Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and include large stretches of Kaibab National Forest. Additionally, the border adjoins a leg of the Colorado River as well as Navajo Nation land and reservations of the Kaibab Paiute, Hualapai and Havasupai people.
Area around Grand Canyon is culturally significant for tribes
As in Grand Canyon National Park itself, the lands around the canyon first hosted humans thousands of years ago and still bear the cultural traces of those indigenous Americans. Thousands of Native American archaeological sites have been recorded in the area, some dating back to the Paleo-Indian period.
The greater Grand Canyon is a significant cultural site for many tribes. Rep. Raul Grijalva introduced legislation in 2015 to protect the land that incorporated input from Havasupai, Hualapai, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Paiute and Yavapai leaders.
Greater Grand Canyon is a natural gem and outdoor recreation hotspot
In addition to its cultural significance, the greater Grand Canyon region is an incredible landscape that exemplifies the wild American West, ranging from arid and geologically stunning deserts to the Pinyon-juniper, Ponderosa pine, mixed conifer and aspen woodlands of Kaibab National Forest (large tracts of which would be included within the area proposed for new protection).
These picturesque ecosystems provide habitat for a variety of wildlife, including Kaibab squirrels, herds of mule deer, mountain lions and even the endangered California condor.
Seekers of outdoor recreation thrills make good use of this gorgeous area, too, converging to hike, bike, ride horses, camp, fish and more. Over 100,000 acres of the Kaibab is designated as federal wilderness, with several challenging hiking trails offering access to visitors.
Unsurprisingly, outdoor recreation is an important economic driver for the region. In Arizona alone, outdoor recreation generates about $10.6 billion in consumer spending every year, directly supporting nearly 104,000 jobs.
A 2015 study based on Rep. Grijalva’s proposal found that a new monument buffering the Grand Canyon would attract 337,000 visitors per year and contribute $51 million in total economic contributions to fragile communities in the area, much of it from spending by out-of-town visitors. The founder of the outfitting company O.A.R.S. has come out in support of protecting the watershed, and a noted “ultrarunner” recently released a short film saluting the area. Current proposals to protect the Grand Canyon watershed would not change rules on hunting, recreation or other uses.
New Grand Canyon monument is popular in Arizona
Despite the opposition from mining and other interests, the proposal to permanently protect the area is popular statewide. In a 2016 survey, most registered Arizona voters said they think that more should be done to protect the greater Grand Canyon region’s land, air and water, with 80 percent of respondents saying they support a national monument designation. Voters were more likely to back members of Congress who supported such a move.
Perhaps most importantly, Native American tribes with ties to the land support stronger protection. The Navajo nation, as well as Havasupai, Hualapai, Hopi, Zuni, Paiute and Yavapai leaders have all supported Rep. Grijalva’s plan. A long list of businesses, community leaders and others in Arizona have also registered support for protecting the greater Grand Canyon.
Time to expand Grand Canyon protection is now
In 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar banned new claims for uranium or other hardrock mining in the Grand Canyon watershed over the following 20 years, but the area still lacks permanent protection. And while Rep. Grijalva’s proposal to remedy that enjoys major support from local tribes and others, the prospect of its passage is dim in a Congress that can’t seem to get much done for conservation.
The Grand Canyon itself was given permanent protection by the federal government nearly a century ago through use of the Antiquities Act, but in order to protect the broader area from threats looming right next door, it is necessary to use it again. Passed in 1906, that law authorizes presidents to designate historic landmarks or objects of “scientific interest” on public lands as national monuments, making it a crucial contingency plan for when Congress won’t protect beloved wildlands.
Please help us get the greater Grand Canyon the added protection it needs.
Originally published at wilderness.org.