Joe Biden signed the proclamation establishing a national monument in Arizona on Tuesday, surrounded by a small crowd of Indigenous leaders and lawmakers who have championed permanently protecting the land.
“It’s not hyperbole to suggest there is no national treasure, none grander, than The Grand Canyon,” the president said on Tuesday, describing the valley as “God’s cathedral”.
Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs and Congressman Raúl Grijalva, both Democrats, as well as US senator Kyrsten Sinema, an independent, who have lobbied for environmental protections surrounding the area, were also in attendance.
Joe Biden, Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), and Brenda Mallory, 12th Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, at the ceremony. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
The designation of “nearly a million acres” comes after years-long lobbying by tribal leaders and local environmentalists to block mining projects that they say would damage the Colorado River watershed and important cultural sites.
The new Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon national monument encompasses the headwaters of the Colorado River, as well as the habitat of the endangered California condor. It is also the homeland of several tribes. Baaj Nwaavjo means “where tribes roam” for the Havasupai tribe and I’tah Kukveni means “our footprints” for the Hopi tribe.
“Establishing the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument honors our solemn promise to Tribal Nations to respect sovereignty, preserves America’s iconic landscapes for future generations, and advances my commitment to protect and conserve at least 30% of our nation’s land and waters by 2030,” Biden said in a statement.
In 2012, the Obama administration had blocked new mining on federal land in the area – but the protections are due to expire by 2023. The new designation would protect the area in perpetuity. Mining industry officials have said they will attempt to challenge the decision.
Map of the Grand Canyon national monument. Photograph: Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust
Congress has been exploring new laws to boost national uranium production and enrichment, in an effort to reduce the US’s dependence on Russian imports.
Advocates for the new national monument have long argued that the region only contains about 1% of US uranium reserves, and should not be sacrificed in the name of energy independence.
“For decades, tribal leaders with the support of members of Congress, community leaders and others have worked to protect these sacred places and restore their connections to these lands, recognizing the area’s significance to their identity,” said US interior secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous American to serve in the US Cabinet, on a press call on Monday.
Designating the national monument will serve to “address past injustices” while building the partnership between Tribal Nations and the US government, Haaland said.
The Grand Canyon region is one of several areas that Indigenous tribes have advocated to protect against extraction. Earlier this year, the Biden administration designated the Avi Kwa Ame national monument in Nevada to protect Native history, to the chagrin of wind and solar power companies looking to expand into the area.
During his presidency, Biden has restored and expanded protections for the Bears Ears national monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument in Utah, which includes the ancestral homeland of the Navajo Nation, the Hopi tribe, the Ute Indian tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, and the Zuni Pueblo, after the Trump administration opened the area up for drilling and mining. Biden also enacted a 20-year ban on drilling near Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, one of the oldest Native American sites in the country.
People hold their phones up as Biden signs a proclamation establishing the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon national monument in Tusayan, Arizona. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
On the call with reporters, Brenda Mallory, the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, touted millions of dollars in climate investments through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which the Biden administration has labeled a historic achievement and is approaching its one-year anniversary.
But mining groups and Republicans have lobbied against the designation, saying it is an overreach of the federal government that hurts the US economy.
On Tuesday, Republican representatives Bruce Westerman and Paul Gosar launched an investigation against Biden and the federal agencies overseeing the monument creation, calling it an “abuse” of presidential power under the Antiquities Act that would “permanently withdraw the richest and highest-grade uranium deposits in the United States from mining – deposits that are far outside the Grand Canyon national park” in a letter, Politico reported.
Biden responded to other Republican-led backlash against the monument, saying: “At a time when some seek to ban books and bury history, we’re making it clear that we can’t just choose to learn only what we want to know. We should learn everything that’s good or bad, the truth about who we are as a nation.”