Arizona Republicans sue Biden over Grand Canyon monument designation
Republicans say economic gains from uranium mining more important than Indigenous interests

Joe Biden celebrates with federal, state and tribal leaders after assigning the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in August 2023. (Photo/Associated Press)

Joe Biden celebrates with federal, state and tribal leaders after assigning the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in August 2023. (Photo/Associated Press)

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Arizona Republicans are challenging the creation of a new national monument near the Grand Canyon that would protect the land from uranium mining and give Native Americans a say in how the land is managed.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Arizona Senate President Warren Petersen and House Speaker Ben Toma said that President Joe Biden did not have the power to create the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, and that its creation harms the state as well as several communities within it. They’re asking the court to declare the creation of the monument unlawful and to set aside its designation as a monument.

Biden issued a proclamation designating the monument — which spans more than 900,000 acres that surround the Grand Canyon in Mohave and Coconino counties — in August 2023.

The creation of the monument garnered wide support, from the Native tribes who regard the land around the Grand Canyon as sacred, to lawmakers like U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, Reps. Ruben Gallego and Raul Grijalva, to Coconino County and the city of Flagstaff.

But in the suit, Republicans Petersen and Toma are joined by Republican State Treasurer Kimberly Yee, Mohave County, Colorado City and the town of Fredonia in alleging that the monument should lose its designation. They argued that the Antiquities Act, which Biden used to create the monument, does not give him the power to do so.

Since a spike in uranium prices in the early 2000s led to surging interest in mining in the Grand Canyon area, lawmakers in the U.S. Congress made multiple attempts to ban uranium mining in the area, but none were successful.

In 2012, the Secretary of Interior revoked mining availability on more than 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon for the next 20 years. The monument declaration makes that mining prohibition permanent for much of the same area. Private and state-owned lands within the area are not included in the monument designation.

If the court sides with the Republicans, it would free up the land for new economic activity, such as uranium mining, after 2032 when the 20-year revocation is up.

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Grand Canyon and Forest Service boundary where Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument is located.

Justin Smith, the Missouri attorney representing the plaintiffs in the suit, alleges that the Antiquities Act is meant to be used for the creation of monuments to protect small historical landmarks on federal land, not a vast area spanning almost 1 million acres. Congress, he argued, has the sole power to declare most federal land designations, such as creating national parks, national forests and national conservation areas.

Ironically, Petersen and Toma have called the creation of the monument a “land grab” without a direct mention that the land was already owned by the federal government — which took it from the tribes in the first place. Prior to the monument’s designation, the land was managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

“This federal confiscation promises to wreak havoc on our local and state economies, jeopardize the livelihoods of our citizens, and compromise national security, all in an attempt to score cheap political points with radical environmentalists,” Petersen said in a statement. “Biden’s maneuver is incredibly disingenuous, as it has nothing to do with protecting actual artifacts. Instead, it aims to halt all mining, ranching, and other local uses of federal lands that are critical to our energy independence from adversary foreign nations, our food supply, and the strength of our economy.”

Smith argues in the lawsuit that the creation of the monument goes far beyond preserving antiquities, and was intended to address the wishes of environmental activists as well as to address “historical federal actions toward Native Americans and to preserve the land for their use.”

Biden’s proclamation created a commission to provide guidance on the management of the monument, and the commission is to include representatives from the tribes with ancestral ties to the monument area.

Smith wrote that the designation of the monument will hurt the economies of Mohave County and the town of Fredonia, resulting in lost uranium mining jobs and decreased economic activity, meaning decreased tax revenue.

“The Proclamation essentially prohibits further use and development of the land, despite the fact those lands are available for the mining of important natural resources, such as uranium, that financially benefit Arizona’s state and local governments and schools,” Smith wrote in the suit.

He also claims that it will cost the state, since some parcels of land in the State Land Trust, which partially funds K-12 education in Arizona, are located within the monument area. Although state land is not part of the monument, Smith argued that prohibitions on motor vehicle travel through monument lands would make economic activity in state trust lands more costly and difficult.

The prohibition on uranium mining inside the monument, according to the lawsuit, will put U.S. energy independence at risk, since it imports a significant amount of uranium from places like Russia. As of 2020, about 16% of the country’s uranium came from Russia, while 22% came from Canada and another 22% came from Kazakhstan.

There is little mining of uranium in America because it is not profitable, though Republicans during Donald Trump’s presidency urged the federal government to subsidize uranium mining here and around the country.

Smith also alleges that the creation of the monument jeopardizes the future of Colorado City’s water supply, which comes from the aquifer that runs beneath the monument.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, told the Arizona Mirror that he sees the suit as part of a continued effort on behalf of the mining industry.

“I don’t see their lawsuit as credible,” Grijalva said. “It’s more of a campaign gimmick and part of their rhetoric going into the election.”

He added that this fight isn’t new, and he’s confident that the law and public opinion are on the side of the continued existence of the monument.

The monument protects thousands of cultural and sacred sites precious to tribal nations in the Southwest. The tribal nations include the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Navajo Nation, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

The name of the monument is a mixture of the traditional Havasupai and Hopi languages. Baaj Nwaavjo means “where tribes roam” for the Havasupai Tribe, and I’tah Kukveni means “our footprints” for the Hopi Tribe.

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