New National Monument Permanently Protects Tribal Interests From New Uranium Mining

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden designated a new national monument near the Grand Canyon, on the border of Arizona and Utah. The new monument is made to permanently protect the land, which is considered sacred to multiple tribes of indigenous people, from new uranium mining claims. The Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument includes in its boundaries 1 million acres of federal lands.

According to the White House statement, the name reflects the significance of the Grand Canyon area, not just to one but to many Tribal Nations. Baaj nwaavjo (BAAHJ – NUH-WAAHV-JOH) means “where Indigenous peoples roam” in the Havasupai language, and i’tah kukveni (EE-TAH – KOOK-VENNY) means “our ancestral footprints” in the Hopi language.

The Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument spans tribes’ homelands, ceremonial land and other important cultural and archaeological sites, according to the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition, who has long pushed for protection of these lands. (The Coalition consists of representatives of the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab Paiute Tribe, Las Vegas Band of 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.) These sites include Gray Mountain, called Dziłbeeh by the Navajo, which is a part of Navajo ceremonial songs, stories and rituals and a sacred site called Wii’i Gdwiisa by the Havasupai, which towers above the southern portion of the monument.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox made a statement opposing the Grand Canyon National Monument designation: “This monument designation is frustrating news, especially for residents of Utah along the Arizona strip. As I’ve said many times before, massive, landscape-scale monuments like this are a mistake. These designations increase visitation without providing any additional resources for law enforcement and infrastructure to protect sensitive areas. They also needlessly restrict access to the critical minerals that are key to cell phones, satellites, U.S. defense systems and so many other American industries. I still believe the only right way to create large new land designations is through Congress in coordination with local leaders and residents, a process that brings all voices to the table and offers the necessary funding.”

Maps of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument boundaries from the Grand Canyon Trust. (Credit Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust.) The monument itself will conserve nearly 1 million acres of public lands made up of three distinct areas to the south, northeast and northwest of Grand Canyon National Park. It is bordered by the Kanab watershed boundary and Kanab Creek drainage in the northwestern area and the Havasupai Indian Reservation and Navajo Nation in the southern area, and stretches from Marble Canyon to the edge of the Kaibab Plateau in the northeastern area.

Timeline: Grand Canyon Area Mining And Protections

So, how did we get here? The disagreement over use and protections of the area around the Grand Canyon is not new. Salt Lake magazine put together a timeline, which provides an overview of the issues and major events:

1906: Early Protections For Grand Canyon Area

President Theodore Roosevelt withdraws the North Kaibab Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest from mineral location and entry when he first creates the Grand Canyon Preserve.

1940s-1950s: Uranium Discovery

Uranium ore deposits are discovered and mines were opened in northern Arizona in the 1940s and 1950s.

Late 1970s: Uranium Mining Interest

A price spike in uranium triggers increased demand for exploration by mining companies.

1980s-1990s: Uranium Mining Boom

the U.S. Geological Survey began studying the uranium deposits of the area and produces maps. Exploration activities result in six new uranium mines that together produced 1,471,942 tons of uranium during the late 1980s into the early 1990s. (Three of seven mines have been reclaimed. The remaining four were put into “maintenance” or standby status in the early 1990s due to declining prices for uranium and economic considerations.)

2000: New Monuments

Tribal lands bordering Grand Canon National Park become off limits to uranium development when the Grand Canyon Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs National Monuments are created and the lands are withdrawn from mineral entry.

2007-2008: “Uranium Bubble”

The price of Uranium spikes, causing an increase in uranium mining claims in attempts to capitalize on the spike, including more than 10,000 uranium mining claims on the land around Grand Canyon National Park.

2008-2009: Efforts To Protect The Grand Canyon

A number of events occur to bring attention to these lands and the potential for long term or permanent impacts to the Grand Canyon watershed from potential environmental effects of uranium exploration and mining. Among them, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Az.), a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduces the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act to protect 1 million acres of land around Grand Canyon National Park from mineral extraction.

2012: 20-Year Ban On New Uranium Mining Around The Grand Canyon

After the Interior Department launches an environmental analysis of uranium mining in the area, the Obama administration places a 20-year moratorium on new claims on 1 million acres of federal land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.

“A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape,” says then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use. We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations.”

The Department’s study shows new uranium mining could harm natural water sources and possibly increase levels of uranium beyond federal drinking-water standards. Without the withdrawal, there could be 30 uranium mines in the area over the next 20 years, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) estimates. Stating, “Millions of people living in seven states depend on the Colorado River for drinking, irrigation, industrial use. Second, it is likely that the potential impacts to tribal resources could not be mitigated. Any mining within the sacred and traditional places of tribal peoples may degrade the values of those lands to the tribes that use them.” 

2017: Pushback On 20-Year Uranium Mining Ban

Former Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) spearheads a movement to repeal the moratorium on uranium mining on federal lands around Grand Canyon National Park, accusing the EIS of overreach. The Trump administration also recommends rolling back the ban on uranium mining in the area. However, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the 20-year ban on new uranium mining on federal land near the Grand Canyon.

2020: Uranium Mining Proposal

Then President Trump proposes $1.5 billion for the nuclear fuel industry to create a U.S. uranium stockpile. Energy Fuels Inc. takes steps to ramp up operations at a uranium mine 15 miles outside Grand Canyon National Park.

2021: USGS Water Study Findings

A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study finds that nearly 95% of samples collected from 206 locations in the Grand Canyon region over 40 years show uranium concentrations less than the EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Level for drinking water. The highest uranium concentrations are observed at springs downslope from the abandoned Orphan Mine within Grand Canyon National Park.

April 2023: Tribal Coalition Pushes For Permanent Protections

The Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition calls on President Biden to designate the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument.

August 2023: President Biden Designates New Monument

President Biden designates Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument. The national monument spans 917, 618 acres on the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon, to protect indigenous cultural and religious sites and water sources from mineral extraction.

The Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument is President Biden’s fifth new monument designation, following the creation of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument in Illinois and Mississippi, the Castner Range National Monument in Texas, Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada and the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument in Colorado.

Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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