Letter To The Editor: Obama’s Last Chance To Protect Grand Canyon

By Hannah Perkins and Dan McGuinness
Environment New Mexico, Golden Dawn Gallery
While climbing into ancient cavates and hiking through the beautiful wilderness of Bandelier National Monument a few weeks ago, I was struck by the thought, what if we hadn’t protected this?
What would have happened to sites of the ancestral pueblo culture and the miles of natural wonders if this hadn’t been designated as a national monument one hundred years ago?

Bandelier National Monument doesn’t just preserve history, culture, and nature. It also allows tourism to thrive in Los Alamos and other local areas. Close to 200,000 people visit the monument each year, and in 2008 alone visitors contributed over nine million dollars to local economies and supported 181 jobs.

Bandelier is just one example of how national parks and monuments can benefit local economies while at the same time protecting our natural, beautiful spaces. The Grand Canyon is another: with a record-setting 6 million visitors in the past year alone, the Grand Canyon is also an economic driver for the region, sustaining thousands of jobs and generating $300 million in economic activity.

Its scenic vistas are also unparalleled. From big horned sheep to the endangered California condor, numerous species make their home in and around the canyon. The hiking, camping and white water rafting are superb.

In addition, the Grand Canyon and surrounding landscapes are filled with antiquities and sites sacred to the Native American community. The Colorado River and its tributaries flow in and out of the Canyon, providing drinking water for tens of millions of people.

Unfortunately, all that makes the Grand Canyon so grand is threatened by uranium mining and the toxic pollution this dirty process creates. Claims have already been made on 3,000 sites near the park, and uranium deposits can be found all around the Canyon. Four tributaries of the Colorado River inside the park are already contaminated by uranium pollution from mines abandoned decades ago. Hikers on trails near Horn Creek, Salt Creek and Kanab Creek are greeted with signs saying “water not suitable for drinking.” 

To the north of the Grand Canyon, uranium is already being mined at the Pinenut Mine site, and another mine is being developed just 6 miles south of the park’s most used entrance. 

During President Obama’s first term, he and then-Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar had the foresight to put a temporary moratorium on uranium mining for one million acres around the park. While that moratorium won’t expire for more than a decade, the potential for more uranium mining around the Grand Canyon is becoming a bigger and bigger threat.

Already some in Congress are looking to overturn the moratorium. If anti-conservation voices have their way, the Grand Canyon itself, as well as its ecological and economic future, will be at risk.

Wildlife habitat and migration patterns would be disturbed by every aspect of the mining, from the increased construction and road traffic mining will cause, to the mining itself, to the resultant pollution. It’s hard to imagine millions of tourists will want to drive through an industrial zone or have the family camper share the road with a truck full of radioactive uranium ore. 

The only guarantee that the Grand Canyon continues to be as great a blessing as it today is if President Obama creates the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument during his final days in office. With the stroke of his pen under the Antiquities Act, he has the power to permanently protect 1.7 million acres that would ensure that the wildlife, water, and our recreation and economic opportunities provided by this great American icon are safe for generations to come. 

Nearly one million Americans have called on the president to do this. Local tribes have spoken out in support. Hundreds of small businesses and college professors have joined the call. Environmental and conservation groups from New Mexico and across the country are asking President Obama to take this one last, best opportunity to permanently protect the Grand Canyon.

From Mount Rainier to Acadia, Death Valley to the Everglades, White Sands to Bandelier, we are blessed with beautiful landscapes in every corner of this country. But if we can’t even guarantee that the Grand Canyon is permanently protected, how will we know that our public lands in New Mexico and across the country will be seen and enjoyed for the next hundred years?