Declaring it good “not only for Arizona but for the planet,” President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed a national monument designation for the greater Grand Canyon, turning the decades-long visions of Native American tribes and environmentalists into reality.
Coming as Biden is on a three-state Western trip, the move will help preserve about 4,046 square kilometers (1,562 square miles) just to the north and south of Grand Canyon National Park. It was Biden’s fifth monument designation.
Tribes in Arizona have been pushing the president to use his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create a new national monument called Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni. “Baaj Nwaavjo” means “where tribes roam,” for the Havasupai people, while “I’tah Kukveni” translates to “our footprints,” for the Hopi tribe.
“Preserving these lands is good, not only for Arizona but for the planet,” said Biden, who spoke with a mountain vista behind him, using a handheld microphone against the wind and wearing a baseball cap and dark sunglasses against the sunshine and heat. “It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the soul of the nation.”
Living up to treaty obligations
Biden likened the designation to his administration’s larger push to combat climate change and noted this summer’s extreme heat, which has been especially punishing in places like Phoenix.
Biden said the new designation would see the federal government live up to its treaty obligations with Native American tribes after many were forced in decades past from their ancestral homes around the Grand Canyon as officials developed the site of the national park.
“At a time when some seek to ban books and bury history, we’re making it clear that we can’t just choose to learn what we want to learn,” Biden said, a reference to his frequent criticism of some top Republicans who have sought to impose limits on school libraries, citing parental complaints about explicit material.
Arizona key in election
The political stakes are high. Arizona is a key battleground state that Biden won narrowly in 2020, becoming the first Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996 to carry it. And it’s one of only a few genuinely competitive states heading into next year’s election. Winning Arizona would be a critical part of Biden’s efforts to secure a second term.
Republican lawmakers and the mining industry have touted the area’s economic benefits and argued that mining is a matter of national security.
Representatives Bruce Westerman, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican who also holds a leadership position on the committee, released a letter to Biden on Tuesday, criticizing the designation and suggesting it “would permanently withdraw the richest and highest-grade uranium deposits in the United States from mining — deposits that are far outside the Grand Canyon National Park.”
The Interior Department, reacting to concerns over the risk of contaminating water, enacted a 20-year moratorium on the filing of new mining claims around the national park in 2012.
Existing mining claims will not be affected by this designation, senior Biden administration officials counter. Furthermore, the monument site encompasses about 1.3% of the nation’s known and understood uranium reserves. Officials say there are significant resources in other parts of the country that will remain accessible.
Invitees at Tuesday’s event included Yavapai-Apache Nation Chairwoman Tanya Lewis, Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores, Navajo President Buu Nygren and Havasupai Tribal Councilwoman Dianna Sue White Dove Uqualla.
Uqualla is part of a group of tribal dancers who performed a blessing at the designation ceremony.
“It’s really the uranium we don’t want coming out of the ground because it’s going to affect everything around us — the trees, the land, the animals, the people,” Uqualla said. “It’s not going to stop.”
After Arizona, Biden will go on to Albuquerque in New Mexico on Wednesday, where he will talk about how fighting climate change has created new jobs. During a visit to Salt Lake City in Utah on Thursday, the president will mark the first anniversary of the PACT Act, which provides new benefits to veterans who were exposed to toxic substances. He’ll also hold a reelection fundraiser in each city.