Biden designates national monument near Grand Canyon
Nolan Stout and Joe Duhownik
(CN) — President Joe Biden on Tuesday designated more than 1.1 million acres of land around the Grand Canyon as a new national monument.
Biden’s executive order will create the Baaj Nwaavjo I'tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument and protect land in Arizona’s Coconino and Mohave counties from any future uranium mining.
He signed the proclamation Tuesday afternoon at the historic Red Butte Airfield, about 17 miles south of the canyon.
“Our nation's history is etched in our people and our lands," Biden said. “Today’s action is gonna protect that history.”
Baaj Nwaavjo means “where tribes roam” for the Havasupai Tribe and I’tah Kukveni means “our footprints” for the Hopi Tribe, according to Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit group that lobbied for years to create the monument.
The Navajo Nation has endured decades of contaminated water from abandoned U.S. government uranium mines on their land — tribes have pointed to the Navajo’s suffering as a reason to not risk repeating the same mistakes. The tribes also lobbied to preserve sacred, cultural and archaeological sites significant to Indigenous history on the land.
“Not only does this designation protect the vast cultural and natural resources significant to the tribes, it also protects the threatened Colorado River watershed and its abundant biodiversity,” said Blaine Miller-McFeeley on behalf of Earth Justice, a nonprofit environmental law group. “More than two thirds of Arizonans support a ban on new uranium mining around the Grand Canyon — this designation gives the people exactly what they have asked for.”
In 2012, the Obama administration issued a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mining on the land. Tuesday’s announcement effectively makes the moratorium permanent.
The Biden administration said the designation would protect sacred cultural spaces while respecting existing livestock grazing permits and preserving access for hunting and fishing. The monument will “help right the wrongs of the past and conserve this land of ancestral footprints,” Biden said.
Companies with active claims to land in the area will still be allowed to mine — the executive order only prevents development of new mines.
“We encourage the administration to also pursue every option possible to remove or mitigate existing mining threats in the region,” Miller-McFeeley said. “The Grand Canyon is one of the most majestic places on Earth and today’s designation will help ensure it remains that way.”
Tuesday’s announcement creates the fifth new national monument designation of Biden’s presidency and follows similar announcements this year for Texas, Nevada, Mississippi and Illinois. It gives Arizona a 19th national monument, more than any other state.
“Preserving these lands is good not only for Arizona, but for the planet,” Biden said. “It's good for the economy, It's good for the soul of the nation.”
Arizona Republicans opposed the move, saying the creation of the monument will close off rural communities from economic opportunities, echoing a similar concern of officials in American Samoa about a massive proposed marine sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean.
Republican state legislators organized an emergency joint committee meeting Monday night in Kingman, Arizona, to give Mohave County officials and residents another opportunity to voice their concerns. County officials complained that they weren’t consulted about the monument, which will take up 445,000 acres of county land, until it was too late to prevent. Residents feared the monument would interfere with private ownership and other industries like ranching and hunting.
Democratic state legislators refused to attend, complaining that the meeting was organized too hastily, and didn’t include Indigenous voices.
"This last-minute special meeting calls for public testimony, but the community most directly impacted by this designation has already spoken," state Representative Stahl Hamilton, a Democrat from Tucson, said in a Monday press release. "Efforts to establish this area as a national monument are spearheaded by a large group of Indigenous tribes seeking to have their land and their resources protected from harmful mining projects.
“Our commitment is to support them."
Republicans in Congress also rebuked the decision. U.S. Representatives Paul Gosar of Arizona and Bruce Westerman of Arkansas sent a letter to Biden outlining concerns that cutting the nation off from “the richest and highest-grade uranium deposits in the United States” will increase reliance on foreign countries and therefore reduce national security.
The congressmen asked Biden to provide, by Aug. 30, documentation to answer 11 questions regarding the monument’s economic, environmental and national security impacts.
Biden was welcomed to Red Butte Airfield by Maya Little, a youth leader for the Hopi and Havasupai tribes.
“Standing here at Red Butte represents the unity of the tribes to protect our ancestral lands,” she said before inviting the president to the podium. “I’m here representing the next generation that has a responsibility to continue its vital work. This is our home, and we are committed to its protection.”
Biden invited Little and more than a dozen other tribal leaders to stand behind him as he signed the proclamation to a thunder of applause.
“America’s natural wonders are our nation's heart and soul,” he said. “They unite us and inspire us. They are birthright to be passed down from generation to generation.”