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Tribes Call On Obama to Bar Uranium Mining in Grand Canyon Forever

The Havasupai, Hualapai, Navajo, and Hopi are among the tribes working to designate 1.7 million acres as the Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument.
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The Havasupai, Hualapai, Navajo, and Hopi are among the tribes working with Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., environmental groups and other lawmakers to designate 1.7 million acres bordering Grand Canyon National Park as the Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument.

The designation would make permanent the 20-year federal moratorium on new uranium mining in and around the canyon put in place in 2012. At stake are a fragile watershed, extensive wildlife habitat and sacred and archaeological sites important to the tribes’ religious and cultural survival.

With elections less than a month away and a lawsuit brought by mining companies seeking to end the federal moratorium set for a hearing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in December, time is short.

Rep. Grijalva introduced legislation a year ago that would provide increased protections for some of the public lands around the Grand Canyon, but proponents believe the Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument Act is unlikely to overcome Congressional gridlock. The alternative is to ask President Barack Obama to use his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to proclaim the monument, and that’s what Grijalva and the tribes have done.

“We want to see the designation occur before the president leaves office.” says Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, “We don’t know who the next president is going to be and what their policy on protecting nature will be, so we’re asking President Obama to act quickly before his term ends.”

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye is acutely aware of the damage done to Navajo land and water by uranium mining. “Much of our groundwater has been contaminated with uranium and other metals like arsenic. Some of the mines are still open and so the pilings just get washed down the river into the arroyos where our children play, where our animals drink the water. It is causing cancer, even with the little children, all the way up through young adults and of course the elders,” he says.

From 1944 to 1986, mining companies took nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore from under Navajo lands to support the nuclear arms buildup during the Cold War. Many of those mines were abandoned and cleanup efforts, begun late, are proceeding only slowly.

Four mines currently operate within the Grand Canyon watershed; the GCHNM designation would not affect those mines, but would prevent implementation of the thousands of permits for new uranium mines in the area.

The designation would not affect water rights or change existing laws governing hunting, grazing, recreation, private and state inholdings, leases, or commercial uses, according to the environmental organization Grand Canyon Trust, which is backing the proposal.

President Theodore Roosevelt established Grand Canyon Game Preserve in 1906; two years later he proclaimed the 800,000-acre Grand Canyon National Monument. Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919. In 1975, the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act, introduced by Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., and backed by Rep. Morris Udall, D-Ariz., nearly doubled the size of the Park to 1.2 million acres.

The area now proposed for a new national monument provides habitat for Kaibab squirrel, northern goshawk, the Kaibab-Paunsagunt mule deer herd, mountain lion, and the endangered California condor. It also includes old growth ponderosa pine forests under threat from drought. The GCHNM would protect the area not only from new uranium mining, but from logging, loss of migratory corridors for wildlife and the destruction of archaeological and tribal sacred sites and cultural resources.

For the Havasupai, protecting the watershed is of utmost importance. “Our world famous waterfalls are supplied by the springs that emit from the aquifer underlying the uranium formations. The springs are our only water source,” the tribe explained in a letter in favor of the designation to Interior Sec. Sally Jewell. Under the proposal, a site north of Red Butte sacred to the Havasupai and other southwestern tribes would also be protected, according to Carletta Tilousi, a Havasupai Tribal Council member who has been spearheading the national monument effort.

Grijalva says one reason he filed legislation, which was referred to the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands last November, was that, “Republicans John McCain and [Jeff] Flake and the whole Republican delegation here in Arizona are very much against the president using the Antiquities Act for monument designation. So we filed a piece of legislation. Let’s have a hearing, let’s go through the regular process. But they have not scheduled hearings, and I do not believe they are going to.”

In crafting the legislation, “the intention was to have the Havasupai, Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, and the list goes on and on, participate in a very direct way about what they saw,” says Grijalva. Conservation and preservation of Native American cultural resources and protection of sacred sites and religious practices are among the primary reasons for asking for the designation, he says.

Sens. McCain, R-Ariz., and Flake, R-Ariz. oppose the plan. A spokeswoman for McCain says, “Like all Arizonans, Senator McCain believes that the Grand Canyon is a vitally important region, and has deep respect for Native American tribes’ unique connection to the land there. Senator McCain also shares the concerns of ranchers, hunters and local leaders in Arizona that the proposal to designate a Grand Canyon Heritage Monument would place restrictions on 1.7 million acres of land—an area larger than the State of Delaware – that supports hunting, cattle grazing, recreation, mining, and other multiple-use activities. The monument would be located miles away from the walls of the Grand Canyon, which are rightfully protected as a National Park.”

According to Flake’s office, he and McCain sent a letter earlier this month asking President Obama to “refrain from designating any additional national monuments in Arizona without first engaging in full and meaningful consultation with affected stakeholders, including local governments and state agencies.” The senators noted that the proposed monument includes 64,000 acres of state land.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is co-sponsoring Grijalva’s bill: “I’m backing this legislation because it will protect the greater Grand Canyon region from existing and future threats. I’ve always stood with Arizona’s Native American tribes in opposing uranium mining at the Grand Canyon.” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., are also supporters.

A survey of registered Arizona voters earlier this year found 80 percent of those polled backed the establishment of the monument. Support crossed party lines, with 65 percent of registered Republicans, 84 percent of independents and 95 percent of Democrats in favor. More than 60 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a Congressional candidate who backed the designation.

A national poll conducted in early September found that 82 percent of respondents strongly support or somewhat support the designation; 14 percent strongly oppose or somewhat oppose it.

According to Grijalva, several online petitions in favor of the designation, one sponsored by the Sierra Club, have garnered more than 650,000 signatures so far.

A 2015 economic impact study estimated the designation would bring economic benefits of $51 million annually to the region, including visitor spending, grazing fees, forest products, minerals, payments to states and counties under Payment in Lieu of Taxes program and the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, and program expenditures, including salaries.

The Havasupai, Hualapai, Hopi and Navajo tribes have passed resolutions backing the proposal, as have the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Inter Tribal Association of Arizona. On October 14, the National Congress of American Indians approved a resolution of support.

Hopi Tribal Chairman Herman G. Honanie says he fears that when the 20-moratorium on uranium mining ends, “it’s going to be a race to begin development of operations for uranium,” with consequences that could include contamination of water supplies and impacts on cultural and religious resources. In a letter to President Obama last April, Honanie wrote, “During the 2015 Native Nations Conference you made a commitment to ‘review tribal proposals to permanently protect sacred lands for future generations.’ On behalf of all Hopisinom I humbly request that you honor this commitment and strongly consider asserting your authority under the Antiquities Act and make the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument a reality.”

Clearly it is a hope shared by the other tribes for whom the Grand Canyon is of such tremendous cultural and religious significance.

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