Arizona Senate President Warren Petersen announced Monday that the Legislature plans to sue the Biden Administration over the president’s declaration of a vast new national monument surrounding much of the Grand Canyon National Park.
House Speaker Ben Toma said he and Petersen agreed to join together to hire attorneys to prepare the lawsuit against the monument designation, which Petersen called a “dictator-style land grab” and Biden’s “tyrannic desires” to block mining and agriculture. Both are Republicans.
Democratic President Joe Biden designated about 1,462 square miles — nearly 1 million acres — of federal land, in three tracts to the south, northeast, and northwest of the national park as a national monument on Aug. 8.
Called the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, the White House said it translates in part in Navajo to “where indigenous peoples roam” and in Hopi to “our ancestral footprints.” It is designed to preserve thousands of cultural and sacred sites that are significant for a dozen Indian tribes that have lived in the area.
The move will also permanently block new uranium mining claims, while allowing current grazing leases, hunting and fishing and other activities to continue. Arizona will continue to have control of fish and wildlife issues.
But Petersen called the designation by the president, authorized under the Antiquities Act of 1906, a vast overreach.
He said the Legislature’s attorneys were working to identify people, industries and local governments directly affected by the monument designation. Petersen said he wants to create a “coalition” to examine its effect and hopes to sue by early next year.
Any lawsuit, however, will have a difficult path to victory.
Just last month, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by the state of Utah and several counties that sought to roll back Biden’s previous expansions of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in that state.
U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffer said every previous effort to challenge a president’s authority to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act had been rejected, including by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.
More to the point, Nuffer noted that only Congress has the power to limit the president’s authority or roll back monument designations and pointed to laws passed limiting new monuments in Alaska and Wyoming.
“Congress knows how to restrict statutory presidential power,” Nuffer wrote in his ruling throwing out Utah’s lawsuit. “Otherwise, the terms of the statute control.”
But Toma said the Legislature needed to get involved anyway.
“Arizona has an obligation to challenge this overreach by the federal government,” he said in a text message. “Other similar legal challenges are working their way through the courts, and the United States Supreme Court has shown interest in this issue.”
Toma said it is too early to tell what it will cost the Legislature — and taxpayers — to sue.
Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs had urged Biden to create the monument.
In a May letter to the president, she wrote that tribes deserved to have the area protected and that her office had “heard from people across the political spectrum including sporting groups, faith leaders, outdoor recreation businesses, conservation groups and others from a broad array of interests that support this monument designation.”
On Monday, she criticized the move by the GOP controlled Legislature.
“Any opposition to this designation goes against the best interests of all Arizonans and ignores the shared benefits of recognizing this land,” said gubernatorial spokesman Christian Slater. “Gov. Hobbs stands by her support of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Monument and she will continue advocating for and with the tribal communities in Arizona.”
In a prepared statement, however, Petersen called the monument “nothing more than a publicity stunt to appeal to his radical environmental base, while in tandem creating dire consequences for the livelihoods of our citizens, Arizona’s economy, as well as our nation’s energy supply.”
But Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, said the designation has to be seen through a different lens, saying Biden’s action “makes clear that Native American history is American history.”
“This land is sacred to the many tribal nations who have long advocated for its protection, and establishing a national monument demonstrates the importance of recognizing the original stewards of our public lands,” she said at the time.
The Senate president, however, made no mention of the sacred sites for several tribes, instead focusing on what he said are economic issues.
“This move has nothing to do with protecting the Grand Canyon,” Petersen said. “It has everything to do with fulfilling his tyrannic desires to block responsible mining and agriculture production in an effort to cater to the extremists who elected him into office.”
Petersen also said the designation is just a continuation of what he said are Biden’s policies including the president’s “war on American energy production,” a war he said is the cause of gasoline that has cost $5 a gallon.
“Now he wants to cripple mining across the U.S. and further exacerbate our dependency on dangerous foreign nations for our energy supply, which will continue to drive up costs for taxpayers amid historic inflation,” the Senate president said.