Protection sought for uranium-rich land near Grand Canyon
Calls for protection come amid push to establish more domestic supply of critical minerals
Amid growing lawmaker interest in establishing domestic supplies of rare earth minerals, a coalition of tribal leaders, backed by some members of Congress, is calling on President Joe Biden to extend permanent protections to over a million acres of land near the Grand Canyon that are home to large uranium ore deposits.
The Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition said that Biden should use his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish a new national monument totaling 1.1 million acres. The proposed Baaj Nwaavjo I'tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument includes public lands of ancestral importance to a dozen tribes, and would include cultural and archaeological sites.
House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., have signed on to the effort. Groups such as the Grand Canyon Trust, Trout Unlimited and Earthjustice have also expressed their support.
"The creator gave us a gift and that gift is in the form of the Grand Canyon," Hopi Tribe Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma said. "That gift is not only to the tribal nations that have that intimate connection with it, but it's a gift to the state of Arizona, it's a gift to the United States, it's a gift to the entire world."
The coalition said it aims to build on the successful push by other tribes who asked for culturally significant land to receive protection under the law. On March 21, Biden designated two national monuments in Texas and Nevada totaling more than 510,000 acres.
The calls to exclude the land from mining come at a time when many have pushed for increased domestic uranium production to ensure the U.S. is less reliant on foreign nations. In 2021 only 5 percent of uranium purchases were sourced domestically while over a third came from Kazakhstan, followed by Canada, Australia and Russia, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The Trump administration found in 2020 that the lack of domestic mines presented a national security issue and suggested that there could be categorical exclusions from permitting laws for new uranium mineral exploration and development activities. This raised concerns that the lands near the Grand Canyon could be slated for mining, and led to Biden reaffirming his support for the moratorium on the campaign trail.
Still, Grijalva expressed concern that Republican calls for a faster permitting system, including through their energy and permitting bill passed by the House last month, may mean that the lands near the Grand Canyon are once again under consideration for mining.
Calls to protect Avi Kwa Ame, the Nevada site announced last month, increased after a portion of it was proposed for development as a wind farm. The site, bearing the Mojave name for Spirit Mountain, was touted by the White House for its cultural significance for a dozen tribes.
Grijalva said the public lands near the Grand Canyon have similar qualities to Avi Kwa Ame and the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which Biden restored after its size was cut by President Donald Trump.
"We would hope that consistency continues under the Biden administration, which I think makes our please, our ask, our call to the administration that much more powerful," said Grijalva.
These public lands also happen to contain high concentrations of uranium ore, and after uranium prices reached an all-time high in 2007, corporations began exploring the possibility of mining in the area.
Outcry from tribes and environmental groups led to a 20-year moratorium being instituted in 2012 by the Obama administration, but those groups and lawmakers have looked for a more permanent solution in the intervening years.
In both 2019 and 2021, the Democratic-controlled House passed bills introduced by Grijalva, largely along party lines, to make the moratorium permanent. Neither measure passed the Senate. Sinema, with Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., introduced a similar bill last Congress.
However, Arizona Republican Reps. David Schweikert and Paul Gosar opposed the Obama administration's action. Gosar referred to Grijalva's bill as a "land grab" and said excluding the land from mining or other activities would cost jobs and tax revenue.
In addition to the indigenous cultural sites, the coalition cites the lengthy drought in the Colorado River basin as a reason to protect the public lands. A multi-decade drought made worse by the effects of climate change has left the region with perilously low water levels that could be harmed by runoff and other mining-related risks. They also argue that Grand Canyon National Park receives nearly 6 million tourists annually, so protecting these lands may contribute more to the regional economy.