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New national monument comes after more than a decade of advocacy by Native nations

A portion of Grand Canyon National Park and the newly designated Baaj Nwaavjo I'tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument
Ryan Heinsius
A portion of Grand Canyon National Park and the newly designated Baaj Nwaavjo I'tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument

The new national monument in Arizona that President Biden is announcing today is primarily aimed at protecting Native American sacred sites on just fewer than a million acres of federally owned land. It's a reflection of his administration prioritizing goals of America's indigenous peoples.

There's only one tribe who actually lives inside the the Grand Canyon, the Havasupai, and they've been among the most outspoken of the more than dozen tribes in the area who have cultural and historic ties to the canyon. They've been pushing for land protections for decades, and banded together formally after President Obama issued a 20-year hold on new uranium mines in 2012.

The Havasupai say uranium mining threatens their sole water source, Havasu Creek, and really their very existence, putting sacred and culturally important sites in danger.

"That's all we have left now as Native Americans, our historical sites and sacred places. Everything else has been taken from us, our original homelands, our sacred places." said Carletta Tilousi, a former Havasupai Council member and the coordinator of the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition.

"The importance to protect the Grand Canyon for me personally is protecting the ancient burial sites of my ancestors," Tilousi said.

There's no active uranium mining in the area right now, and only one existing mine that's anywhere close to opening. But with climate change there is new momentum to develop more nuclear energy because it has no carbon emissions.

But the Biden administration has been very open to Native peoples' concerns. The president appointed the nation's first Indigenous Cabinet member, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo. She put the region's tribes in the driver's seat for the current version of this monument proposal, which aligns very closely with what the tribal coalition has been requesting.

Uranium miners are not pleased

Not surprisingly, the uranium industry has opposed restrictions on mining in the area for years. They say there are significant reserves near the Grand Canyon and that they can mine it with minimal impact to the land.

Curtis Moore with the company Energy Fuels Resources, which owns the sole uranium mine under development near the Grand Canyon, said there isn't any evidence that mining will contaminate groundwater.

"A lot has changed in ... 50, 60, 70 years," Moore said. "We know a lot more about how to mine uranium responsibly. The Grand Canyon is a national treasure and we have as much interest in protecting it as anybody."

Moore says it's important to develop a domestic uranium supply because Russia and former Soviet republics supply nearly half of all U.S. nuclear fuel now.

The White House says the land inside the new monument has less than 2% of the known uranium reserves in the U.S. and that there's plenty of uranium elsewhere.

The new monument is being called Baaj Nwaavjo I'tah Kukveni – a name taken from the Havasupai and Hopi languages meaning "where Indigenous peoples roam," and, "our ancestral footprints." It's the third monument President Biden has dedicated specifically to protect land that's culturally important to Indigenous Americans.

That started with re-dedicating the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which President Obama had originally designated, and then was cut by nearly 85 percent in size during the Trump administration. And then in March he designated the half-million-acre Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in southern Nevada's Mojave Desert, which also contains sites sacred to several tribes.

The president said he's setting the land near the Grand Canyon aside because there are thousands of sacred and cultural sites that are important to more than a dozen tribes there.

Presidents of both parties have used the Antiquities Act for more than a century to create national monuments. In more recent memory, President Clinton in 1996 created the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, and the 176,000-acre Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado in 2000.

The new monument will encompass lands on both the Grand Canyon's north and south rims. North of the park it's high-elevation ponderosa pine forest, at about 8,000 feet above sea level, and to the south its mixed vegetation with pinyon pine and junipers. There's also a section of desert landscape along the Colorado River outside of the park that'll be protected. It's an extremely ecologically diverse area that contains many seeps and springs that feed the river.

Copyright 2023 KNAU News Talk. To see more, visit KNAU News Talk.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR News and National Native News.