Russell Begaye: “Much of our groundwater has been contaminated with uranium and other metals like arsenic.”

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

Tanya H. Lee

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.”


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David Odell's picture
David Odell
Submitted by David Odell on
It was exciting to see the Bushes and Clintons end their presence in this election. The one big disappointment was the re-election of McCain. He does not serve the people of his state, and he does not serve the people of his country. His senate seat is strategically located like Hillary was in NY, and his purpose is to pacify and exploit Native lands containing uranium and other minerals. To see what the dog is guarding, is to listen to when he barks.