By Dean B. Suagee
The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorizes the President to proclaim national monuments to protect historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest on national public land. President Obama has used this authority to protect more national public land than any of his predecessors. As his presidency draws to a close, a few candidates for national monument proclamations are still under consideration. One is the proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, about 1.7 million acres of federal land administered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management on either side of Grand Canyon National Park. This proposal is also the subject of a bill sponsored by Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), H.R. 3882. I encourage the President to act on this proposal.
One theme in the Obama Administration’s selection of places for designation as national monuments has been to commemorate chapters of American history that have not been much celebrated but, rather, have been largely overlooked or ignored. Examples include monuments honoring Cesar Chavez in California, Harriet Tubman in Maryland, and the Stonewall uprising in New York City. Greater Grand Canyon Heritage is another example of this theme – much of the heritage to be preserved is that of a number of Indian tribes with ancestral and contemporary connections to the Grand Canyon, including Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, several bands of Paiute, Yavapai-Apache, and Zuni.
The Greater Grand Canyon ecosystem has been inhabited by the ancestors of present-day tribes for a very long time, and many places on national public lands continue to be used by members of living tribal cultures. Many places have historic significance. While traditional tribal uses are generally compatible with many other uses of public lands, federal land management agencies have not always been appreciative of tribal cultural values and have often subordinated tribal interests to the interests of other sectors of the public.
Preservation of tribal cultural heritage is a good reason why President Obama should proclaim the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, but it is not the only reason. There is also the matter of uranium mining, and its associated environmental degradation, such as water pollution and impacts from road construction. Uranium mining on national public lands is subject to the General Mining Law of 1872, which, in effect, makes uranium free for the taking, i.e., free for corporations with the means to take it. There is no return to the taxpayer despite these minerals being on national public lands, and no accountability for the environmental damage it causes. Uranium mining has been going on in the greater Grand Canyon watershed for decades; the number of active mines, and claims that could become mines, fluctuating with international market prices.
Most of the national public land in the proposed Greater Grand Canyon national monument was the subject of a decision in 2012 by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to “withdraw” it for 20 years from availability for new uranium mining claims under the 1872 Mining Law, using authority delegated to the Secretary in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. The withdrawal decision was based on several factors, including elevated levels of uranium and arsenic in springs and wells in areas disturbed by mining and the uncertain but possibly severe effects on plants, wildlife, and livestock. The decision also noted that seven tribes continue to use parts of the withdrawal area for traditional purposes, and that they all believe that new uranium mining would interfere with their use of the area’s natural resources.
The main legal effect of proclamation as a national monument would be to make the prohibition of new mining claims permanent. Most other public uses would still be allowed, including hunting, livestock grazing, camping, and other forms of outdoor recreation.
The proclamation by itself would not preserve all the particular places that are important for the tribes. By recognizing cultural heritage as a core reason for the proclaiming the area a national monument however, President Obama can direct the two federal land management agencies that oversee these national public lands to collaborate with each other and the affected tribes (and other stakeholders) in developing and implementing a management plan that demonstrates genuine appreciation for the cultural heritage of the tribes. Future generations of Americans will be grateful.
Dean B. Suagee is an attorney with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP, in Washington, D.C.