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Biden designates national monument for lands near Grand Canyon

Sinema, Kelly and Grijalva urged the president to take action

Maya Tilousi, member of the Hopi Tribe, Havasupai Tribe of Grand Canyon and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, shakes hands with President Joe Biden at Red Butte Airfield in Arizona on Tuesday. Biden put the brakes on uranium mining around the Grand Canyon by giving an area of nearly 1 million acres national monument status.
Maya Tilousi, member of the Hopi Tribe, Havasupai Tribe of Grand Canyon and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, shakes hands with President Joe Biden at Red Butte Airfield in Arizona on Tuesday. Biden put the brakes on uranium mining around the Grand Canyon by giving an area of nearly 1 million acres national monument status. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden signed a proclamation designating a new national monument near the Grand Canyon National Park on Tuesday, providing stronger protections for nearly 1 million acres and permanently removing them from consideration for future uranium mining.

Using his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act, the proclamation establishes the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument. The site, totaling more than 917,000 acres, includes lands of ancestral importance to a dozen tribes, as well as multiple cultural and archaeological sites.

Leaders from a dozen tribes, some of whom were present for the signing at an airfield near the Kaibab National Forest, have been pushing for greater protections for the lands. Ahead of the announcement, the administration said the designation is a step toward addressing the historical exclusion and dispossession of Indigenous people in the area, a sentiment Biden echoed during his speech. 

“They fought for decades to be able to return to these lands, to protect these lands from mining and development, to clear them of contamination, and to preserve their shared legacy for future generations,” Biden said. “I made a commitment as president to prioritize respect to tribal sovereignty and self-determination, and to honor the solemn promises the United States made to tribal nations to fulfill federal trust to treaty obligations.” 

Biden was joined by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., who have called on the president to use his authority under the Antiquities Act. 

The establishment of the monument won’t impact private property rights or existing permits for livestock grazing, the administration said. It will also maintain access for hunting and fishing, and existing mining claims, which predate a 20-year mineral withdrawal moratorium initiated in 2012, will remain in effect.

In addition to cultural sites, the monument includes creeks and streams that ultimately make their way to the Colorado River, and habitats for species ranging from bighorn sheep to peregrine falcons.

The lands are also home to uranium deposits. After the price of uranium reached record highs in 2007, corporations began exploring the possibility of mining in the area, which led the Obama administration to institute a 20-year moratorium in 2012. Opponents to development have called for a more permanent solution.

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 and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., have introduced similar bills in the Senate. Both Grijalva and Sinema reintroduced the bills last month.

Sinema and Grijalva joined tribal leaders earlier this year and urged Biden to use his executive authority to establish a national monument. Arizona Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs also supported the effort, urging Biden to take executive action to protect the area as long as the state retains management of fish and wildlife.

Tribal leaders, with the support of environmental groups, said the drought in the Colorado River basin, made worse by the effects of climate change, have only heightened the need to protect the water in the region from contamination associated with uranium mining.

GOP opposition

But Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., whose district will include portions of the monument, has expressed his opposition to the move, referring to it as a land grab. Prior to the announcement, House Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said the decision is the latest action in “this administration’s war on the American economy and the mining sector” and promised a congressional response.

“This land belongs to the American people, not any administration or bureaucrats who think they make the laws,” Westerman said in a statement. “I fail to see any rationale in this proposal beyond a selfish political agenda that locks away the very resources we depend on for our daily lives.”

Just before the signing, Westerman and Gosar, who chairs the panel’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, sent a letter to Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning and U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore asking them to outline how withdrawing the land from consideration for mining will impact energy security. The Forest Service and the BLM manage the monument lands.

The creation of the monument comes at a time when members of both parties have sought to support domestic uranium production in order to reduce dependence on foreign sources, particularly Russia. 

Senior administration officials said the designation would not impact uranium production since the area has already been covered by the Obama administration moratorium and noted that the site includes just over 1 percent of the nation’s known uranium reserves.

The monument would be the fifth created by Biden. Last October he designated the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in Colorado, and in March he designated two national monuments in Texas and Nevada totaling more than 510,000 acres.

Last month Biden designated the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument composed of three sites in Illinois and Mississippi relating to Till’s murder and his mother’s subsequent activism. 

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