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Conservationists split on protections for Grand Canyon

The Canyon Mine, 15 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park, opened in 1986, but has produced no ore because of low uranium prices. (Photo by Jake Eldridge/Cronkite News)

The Canyon Mine, 15 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park, opened in 1986, but has produced no ore because of low uranium prices. (Photo by Jake Eldridge/Cronkite News)

While Democrats work on two fronts to protect the Grand Canyon, conservationists disagree on one of the measures.  

The Biden administration has set out to conserve 30% of American lands and waters by 2030, an ambitious goal that would require the collaboration of local and state governments, conservationists and indigenous peoples, and his gameplan heavily stresses the need for local governments to lead the charge on conservation efforts. 

Relying on local governments to halt proposed mining operations in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon worries conservation experts like Joe Trudeau of the Center for Biological Diversity.   

Trudeau, who specializes in helping protect wilderness areas in the Southwest from logging, mining and what his group considers other potentially harmful practices, fears that local governments will side with the mining companies rather than working to protect the land from exploitation. 

“There’s the cultural resistance to [protecting land] in a lot of Western states,” he said. “There are people who just don’t trust entities that protect land from development, whether that’s the government or land trusts or conservancies. A lot of trust needs to be built there.” 

The canyon is a source of livelihood for many Arizona residents. While its scenic views and unique rock formations attract an estimated 5.9 million tourists every year, the canyon’s plentiful supply of uranium has also drawn in mining operations that threaten to pollute the Colorado River and the surrounding forests. 

The canyon has been under a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims enacted in 2012, but the moratorium did not affect existing permits, which includes 1 million acres outside the park but within the canyon’s watershed. 

Although Trudeau is skeptical of the Biden Administration’s approach, other conservationists such as Aaron Weiss from the Center for Western Priorities see it as the only viable way to fight against the exploitation of American lands. Weiss, an Arizona native, said the participation of local governments is a crucial part of conserving threatened ecosystems. 

“That has to be the way we do it,” he said. “Once everyone is talking to each other, you find it’s possible to reach consensus, when you get everyone working together to say, ‘Here is the land that is important to protect, here is the land that is important for wildlife.’” 

Weiss says that locally led protection efforts could be the key to ensuring long-term protections in the Grand Canyon region, pointing to widespread support among Native American nations in the area and Arizona voters who have been very proactive in trying to conserve their ancestral homelands. 

“There is bipartisan consensus in Arizona that we need to protect the Grand Canyon,” Weiss said. “The role that Indigenous tribes are playing is the leadership role. It is important for all of us in the conservation community, first and foremost, to step back and listen to Indigenous voices, listen to the people who have cared for this land.” 

The difficulty that comes with relying on local governments to protect land is something that Trudeau has experienced firsthand. For the past several years, he has worked to secure increased protection for a geological formation in Yavapai County that also holds large uranium deposits. His efforts have encountered heavy resistance from municipal governments in the area at every turn. 

“For five years now we’ve been working to protect a certain piece of land in an area called the Granite Dells,” he said. “We were faced with fierce resistance from the city of Prescott. Municipal bodies, city councils and county boards of supervisors are in many ways beholden to the growth industry. It’s very difficult to protect land if you don’t have political bodies who are willing to say no to a form of development.” 

Though the Biden administration trusts that local governments will do their part to protect the precious ecosystems that fall under their respective jurisdictions, Trudeau insists that more federal oversight is required to ensure that public lands such as the Grand Canyon are adequately protected.  

“[The plan] does not recommend that we designate new wilderness areas or new wild and scenic river corridors,” he said. “These are proven measures to help protect the environment, provide places for people to enjoy and see wildlife and have innumerable, immeasurable benefits.” 

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Grand Canyon Protection Act, which seeks to permanently ban new mining operations in a 1-million acre stretch of public land around the canyon. 

The 227-220 vote was nearly along party lines with eight Republicans joining the majority to vote for it. The Arizona delegation members, including the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, voted with their respective parties.  

In general, critics said banning uranium mining around the canyon brings economic costs and risks national security.  

“Decreasing our reliance on foreign nations for critical minerals is an important part of ensuring our national security,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, in a written statement. “The Grand Canyon region is home to uranium which is essential to many industries. We should not limit our domestic production of this important resource.”  

The bill has seen no action in the Senate, where mining bans have died before, but Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly have introduced their own version that would prohibit mining after a study on the national uranium stockpile.  

Haleigh Kochanski of Cronkite News contributed to this report.  

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