As we made our way North from Interstate 40 towards Grand Canyon National park, we passed through a beautiful rural section of Arizona. I began to feel the kind of excitement children feel in advance of their favorite family outing. I am unphased by the fluffy white snow blanketing much of the land around us. The Grand Canyon has been a bucket list experience of mine for quite some time – and today was the day.
On the road to the canyon, small mobile homes sat amid vast expanses of otherwise empty space. Many of these homes had built on leaning or external structures and shared the land with livestock. These features suggested they were permanent homes rather than temporary campsites.
Most of the Canyon’s trails were closed due to the snow and ice which covered much of the surface. The upper viewing areas were open, however, and we were able to look out over the southern rim. The snow added a bit of magic to the already captivating scene.
Looking into the canyon feels a bit like looking into a clear night sky – one is at once taken to feelings of overwhelming joy and humility. Staring into this complex landscape of color and time, I felt a deep sense of respect for nature’s persistence.
Through natural systems, the patient tenacity of our planet had unlocked immense beauty, as well as geological formations which have informed scientific discussions on planetary origins and development.
Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919 by President Theodore Roosevelt. From 2008-2016, an average of 5.3 million people visited the park each year.
In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.
“…the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon.” Indeed. For want of leaders who can still work such magic with prose.
Whereas President Roosevelt, a Republican, created the U.S. National Park system and prioritized conservation, today’s Republican party has been rapidly removing protections from national parks and public lands. It is difficult to fathom that, should a natural wonder be discovered today, Washington, DC would unite in its preservation.
Whereas our 26th Republican president worked towards conservation and environmental education, our 45th Republican president is going above and beyond to satisfy the requests of extractive industry.
I wonder what our President Roosevelt would say if he visited this national treasure today and found, not cottages or hotels, but uranium mining operations, dotting the horizon near the Canyon’s rims.
Uranium mines have been operating in and around Grand Canyon National Park since the 1970’s. A decline in the price of the ore caused most of the operations to shut down in the 1990s. Abandoned mines often lack necessary maintenance to prevent toxic contamination and Orphan Mine, located two miles northwest of Grand Canyon village, was no exception. Orphan mine is now a designated Superfund site inside a national park.
For those who live near-by, abandoned mines cause concerns for health and safety, particularly for children. For mining companies, on the other hand, abandoned mines mark proven ore reserves. When the price of ore rose again in 2006, thousands of mining claims were filed within the Colorado River watershed.
That same year, the U.S. Forest Service began issuing exploration licenses for these claims without requiring an environmental assessment. The Bureau of Land Management took steps to reopen abandoned mines without requiring the mining companies to revise the outdated environmental assessments completed in the 1980s.
When the governments in developing countries like Bolivia or Indonesia see fit to allow destructive development occur inside national parks, local and global civil society often unite to call it what it is – government corruption and cronyism. In the U.S., the narrative has increasingly suggested that this is merely the Republican ideology.
Yet, of the pillars of traditional Republican principles – strong state and local governance, decreased federal decision making, energy independence, and fiscal responsibility – the uranium mining operations here seem to be clear contradictions.
Hundreds of the claims were filed on behalf of foreign firms, seeking to ship the uranium out of the U.S. Some of these firms have national backing, including from Russia’s state atomic energy corporation and South Korea’s state-owned utility.
State and local governance
The local communities and tribes that live in the park and the surrounding watershed have been outspoken in their desire not to have mines operating on these lands. These communities have used every avenue available to them, from public hearings and comment submissions, to local rallies and protests, to testifying at a Congressional hearing, determined to participate in the decisions being made about their lands.
Locals fear the operations will pollute their farmlands, water and air, threatening their livelihoods and their families. The operations will all send the profits from their resources out of town while endangering the tourism value which many of them depend on. One Superfund site in their backyard is enough.
An investigation by one U.S. civil society group found that communities on the Navajo reservation are still suffering the effects of the last generation’s mining operations.
Studies by the US Geological Survey and the National Park Service support local concerns, finding that the risk to public health and the environment are significant.
USGS also issued a statement that the uranium at the Grand Canyon sites likely make up around 1.5% of the U.S.’s total deposits, not 40% as claimed by mining proponents.
A number of high-ranking Arizona State officials, including the Governor Doug Ducey and Congressman Raul Grijalva, have advocated to protect these areas, through lobbying efforts and legislation. Regional officials and authorities in the Southwest, including New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingamon and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, have sent letters to Washington officials who have supported the mining operations, outlining their concerns and expressing their opposition.
Federal decision making/entanglement in State’s affairs
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources voted 20-2 in favor of a resolution to withdraw all public lands around the Grand Canyon from new uranium claims and exploration in 2008. This legislation grandfathered in the existing mines but was seen as a step in the right direction by many state actors working on this cause.
Five months later, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne (during the President George W. Bush administration) announced plans to essentially revoke the Congressional action, claiming there was no emergency to justify it.
Why would a Republican administration take executive action against the wishes of locals, state officials, regional resource authorities, and the U.S. House of Representatives (once referred to as “the people’s house”), in support of foreign companies sending U.S. nuclear energy resources to foreign governments?
The Revolving Door
Arizona’s U.S. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain stood against their fellow state officials – and communities – in strong support of these mines. Senator Flake is a former lobbyist for Rio Tinto, a major Namibian uranium mining company, from whom he received $100,000 in contributions.
Senator McCain argued the mines would create jobs and offer a strong boost to the local economy. It is not clear that the jobs created will be by locals. Primarily, this argument overlooks the damage that is predicted to the tourism industry, on which many locals have built their livelihoods and which informs a core part of Arizona’s state identity.
The Grand Canyon generates $687 million annually in regional revenue and contributed to the creation of over 12,000 full-time jobs, according to a 2005 study by Northern Arizona University. In contrast, industry-provided data compiled by the Interior department predicts that new mining operations are projected to hire 75 people during the seven-year life cycle. These jobs will be short-term and potentially hazardous.
Agricultural livelihoods would also be threatened by any contamination of water or soil, as well as the future economic potential for children exposed to radiation contamination.
So it goes
In January 2010 uranium mining resumed at the Arizona 1 mine, near the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Activists – local and national – lobbied for the creation of a “Greater Grand Canyon” heritage site and to extend a mining ban around the site. Interior Secretary Salazar (President Obama’s administration) issued a 20-year ban on 1.1 million acres in January 2012. Arizona’s local officals spoke out with gratitude and more than 200 local business leaders sent postcards to Salazar referencing the economic benefits of protecting the Grand Canyon.
It is this ban that mining industry executives and Senators Flake and McCain (as well as Senators from neighboring Utah, Orin Hatch and Mike Lee) are now urging President Trump to roll back.
The Guardian has started the project “This Land is Our Land” to “aggressively report on proposed rollbacks of environmental protections and the push to sell off national land.”
It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds, and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last, it looks as if our people were awakening. – Theodore Roosevelt, early 1900’s