A national treasure
“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best …” – Wallace Stegner
If you need evidence that our National Parks are our best idea, then you need look no further than the Grand Canyon. Its majestic steep sided canyons plunge thousands of feet below your feet, the Colorado river twists for hundreds of miles, cutting deep into layered sandstone, glinting and reflecting the immense blue Arizona sky. The South Rim of the canyon offers visitors views that are so vast and breathtaking they often leave people speechless. It’s no wonder the park receives nearly 5 million visitors a year.
The Grand Canyon National Park is also critical for wildlife, it comprises several distinct ecosystems, ranging from desert to forest land. The 1,900 square miles of the park serve as an ecological refuge for many plants and animals, including many threatened and endangered species such as the California condor, Mexican spotted owl and Fickeisen plains cactus. And at least 12 Tribes and Nations have cultural and spiritual connections to the area.
The Grand Canyon is at risk
What most visitors to the park don’t appreciate is that the Grand Canyon and surrounding area is also at great risk. Unless we act soon, the park could be polluted and changed forever. That’s because there are over 600 uranium mining claims surrounding the park, some as close as 10 miles from the park boundary. And since the entire state of Arizona is in the drainage basin of the Colorado River, that means that if allowed to move forward, those mines will also be in the drainage basin. Right now there is a 20-year moratorium on developing those leases but that protection is set to end in 2032. And mining companies may already be lining up investors and hiring lobbyists to be sure that they can begin breaking ground as soon as the moratorium expires. Uranium is used as fuel for nuclear power plants and nuclear reactors. The market has gone through several “boom and bust” cycles.
The Grand Canyon is an American treasure, and it’s our job to protect it, including the land and streams which surround it. The first step is to make sure we educate as many people as possible to the threats facing the Grand Canyon. The next is to call on our elected officials to enact policies that will permanently protect the park for future generations.
If new mining is allowed in the areas surrounding the Grand Canyon, it could mean that heavy equipment will create massive pits or it could mean chemicals will be pumped into the groundwater to dissolve the uranium in the rocks and then pumped back up to the surface. And any one of these 600 operations could leak radioactive materials into groundwater, or pollute the air with radioactive dust, putting wildlife and park visitors at risk. These mining operations also create, and leave behind pools of uranium-contaminated water which attract birds and other wildlife, and can stay poisonous for generations.
A new opportunity to protect the Grand Canyon using the antiquities act
There have been bills in congress that could have gotten the job done, but unfortunately that while the House passed a bill last session, the Senate did not pass their version. This year, the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition has requested that President Biden issue a proclamation to establish the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument (Baaj Nwaavjo means “where tribes roam” for the Havasupai Tribe and I’tah Kukveni means “our footprints” for the Hopi Tribe) and members of the Arizona congressional delegation will likely introduce a bill that outlines the location and size of a new monument. This monument would protect land surrounding the Park, and make it off limits to mining, permanently. The bill will serve as the framework for the Biden administration to use to create the monument under the Antiquities Act.
President Biden has already designated 3 national monuments during his presidency and has protected other important public lands from Chaco Canyon to the Boundary Waters. These conservation actions have been greeted with enthusiastic approval by local communities and across the country and the Biden administration has committed to more conservation actions. Protecting the Grand Canyon could be the most popular conservation announcement of his presidency.
Environment America Research and Policy Center has a long track record of working to protect the Grand Canyon, including writing reports, organizing field campaigns and engaging our supporters to defend and protect this critical area. We can make sure there’s enough public support from across the country to make this happen. Our plan is to reach people across the country and get them involved to support the proposed Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument. We are generating letters, emails and phone calls from all 50 states to the White House demonstrating that there is widespread support. We’ll ask everyone who takes action to involve their friends, family and networks to get involved as well.
You can start by signing our petition:
We have an opportunity to make sure that one of the most iconic places in the United States will be permanently protected from future mines and radioactive pollution.
Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America Research & Policy Center
Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.