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Arizona tribes back creation of new monument at Grand Canyon

A uranium mine is already located in the Red Butte Traditional Cultural Property within the Kaibab National Forest. The Grand Canyon sits six miles to the north. Photo by Bruce Gordon / Ecoflight

Leaders of four Arizona tribes are supporting the establishment of a new national monument at the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is already protected as a national park. But that designation isn't enough to prevent uranium development on surrounding lands.

That's why the Navajo Nation, the Havasupai Tribe, the Hualapai Tribe and the Hopi Tribe are supporting the new Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument. They believe the designation would protect not only sacred and cultural sites but their health and well-being from an industry that has scarred their communities.

“On the Navajo Nation, our people are dying from various forms of cancer. We believe many are directly related to the uranium mining of the 1940s through the 80s, and the leftover tailings from the uranium mill processing sites,” President Russell Begaye said at a press conference in Flagstaff on Monday. “The effects from uranium mining are real and must be prevented.”

From left: Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) in Flagstaff, Arizona, on October 13, 2015. Photo from Navajo Nation OPVP / Facebook

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, unveiled the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument Act at the press conference. He plans to introduce the bill in the House once Congress returns to session next week.

The 1.7 million-acre monument would cover lands north of Grand Canyon, extending all the way to the Utah state line. It would border the Navajo Nation on the northeast and the Kaibab Paiute Reservation on the northwest, according to a map prepared for Grijalva.

The proposed monument also would cover lands to the south of the park, including the Kaibab National Forest, which is already under federal management. That's where tribes are opposing uranium development.

The Canyon Mine is already in the forest. It happens to be located within the Red Butte Traditional Cultural Property, a designation granted in 2010 at the insistence of the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai, Hopi and Kaibab Paiute tribes.

The Reagan administration approved the Canyon Mine in the 1980s. Developer Energy Fuels put the project on hold in the early 1990s after uranium prices dropped. The company plans to resume operations at the site pending resolution of litigation in federal court. Photo from U.S. Forest Service

The tribes hoped the determination would help them protect important sites but the U.S. Forest Service just two years later allowed the resumption of operations at the mine after more than a decade of dormancy. Both the developer, Energy Fuels, and the agency say the site holds the potential for 1,629,000 pounds of uranium, a huge development that would fetch over $59 million at current market prices.

The Havasupai Tribe and environmental groups filed suit in 2013 to block the project but Judge David Campbell ruled in favor of the Obama administration in April. The case is now pending before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

At issue in the appeals is whether the Forest Service should have consulted tribes before re-authorizing development and whether the agency should be required update an environmental review that was completed during the Reagan administration.

“We are very disappointed with the ruling by Judge Campbell in the Canyon Mine case,” Chairman Rex Tilousi said in a press release. “We believe that the National Historic Preservation Act requires the Forest Service to consult with us and the other affiliated tribes before they let the mining company damage Red Butte, one of our most sacred traditional cultural properties."

An aerial view of the abandoned United Nuclear Corporation's uranium mill in Church Rock, New Mexico. A spill in 1979 contaminated groundwater on the Navajo Nation. Decades later, the site still hasn't been fully cleaned up. Photo from The Energy Library via Wikipedia

The Obama administration is already facing a challenge to its decision to withdraw 1 million acres near Grand Canyon from new uranium mining claims, a case also pending in the 9th Circuit. The withdrawal did not apply to Canyon Mine because the Forest Service determined that it was covered under existing rights.

President Barack Obama could of course designate a new monument to protect the lands at issue. Tribes have supported his designations in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and California.

Several tribes -- including those that support the new Grand Canyon monument -- are also seeking Obama's support for the establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

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