“Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” – Theodore Roosevelt, speaking of the Grand Canyon
We did not heed Teddy’s advice.
The first thing visitors may see when entering Grand Canyon National Park through the main South Entrance is not the iconic mile deep, 18 mile wide chasm. It may well be the Yavapai Lodge (where “natural beauty meets the magic of convenience” according to the website). Speaking of convenience, the lodge is only steps away from the post office, a bank, and a grocery store. Just a short distance away is Grand Canyon Auto Services, where you can get your oil changed at the very same time you’re gazing at one of the seven wonders of the world. The train station is across the street, with four other lodges and hotels within a short walk. The three visitor’s centers in Grand Canyon Village—the official name for this quasi-town of 2,000—peddle all the Grand Canyon merchandise necessary to provide a complete tourist experience.
Those seeking a more—what should we call it, authentic?—experience do have an option: Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. Created by President Bill Clinton on January 11, 2000, the 1.1 million acre Monument is nearly the same size as its sister National Park but is almost entirely undeveloped. Located on the northwestern flank of the National Park, Grand Canyon-Parashant provides spectacular views from the north rim of the Canyon and protects watersheds crucial to the health of the Colorado River system. Clinton’s Interior Secretary, Arizona native Bruce Babbitt, called the National Monument the “full and final chapter in the history of preserving the canyon” at its dedication ceremony.
The area was first considered for wilderness designation in 1975, when nearby land was added to the National Park with the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act, and Congress again took up the idea in the 1980s. Both times, intense pressure from ranching and mining interests scuttled the efforts. The political landscape changed in the 1990s however. Towards the end of President Clinton’s second term, the detrimental effects of a century of overgrazing coupled with a disinterested mining industry suffering from depressed uranium prices gave his administration both cause and opportunity, respectively, to establish the Monument. Still, it was passionately opposed by the sparse local population, Arizona’s governor, and most of the state’s congressional delegation. Arizona’s deep conservative roots (It’s been a traditional red state for two generations or more) make the federal government a quite unpopular neighbor. Perhaps those most surprised by the Monument’s establishment were environmental groups, who rarely seem to win these battles but swung for the fences by lobbying to double the size of the Monument (originally proposed at 500,000 acres) and set it up around watershed boundaries in an effort to protect the entire Grand Canyon ecosystem. Though limited grazing continues within Grand Canyon-Parashant, mining and commercial development are not allowed.
The word Parashant is derived from the Paiute Indian phrase Pawteh ‘ee oasoasant, meaning “tanned elk hide,” or “softening of the elk hide.” A small part of the ancestral lands of the Paiute people, Grand Canyon-Parashant’s variety of landscapes, from alpine mountains to grasslands to slickrock canyons, is critical habitat for numerous endangered and threatened species, including the California condor, desert tortoises, desert bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope. It is an ecologically unique area where the Sonoran, Great Basin, and Mojave Deserts converge. And geologists are keenly interested in the story the landscape can tell with its 1.7 billion year old rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the relatively young 1 million year old basalt on Mt. Logan’s peak.
However, it is that same geology which piques the temptations of commercial interests and which may ultimately threaten the existence of Grand Canyon-Parashant. Deep underground in the Monument’s rocks may be a bonanza of uranium ore.
Uranium is a silvery-white metal owing its uniqueness to the fact it is the only known naturally occurring fissile isotope—in other words, it can produce a nuclear reaction and make you glow you in dark if you spend too much time with it. Through a refinement process called enrichment, its radioactive and nuclear properties are enhanced to the point it can be used to produce nuclear weapons and fuel for nuclear power plants. It is also a very dense metal, leading to its use in alloys for military armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles such as bullets.
Uranium mining boomed in the desert southwest during the Cold War. The United States government set uranium prices and offered $10,000 bonuses for producing mines. Like the California gold rush of a hundred years before, prospectors flooded Utah, Arizona, and Nevada seeking their fortunes.
Within five years, the first cases of cancer in miners began to surface. A hundred miners were dead by 1966.
Over time, uranium use shifted from military purposes to civilian nuclear power when the government stopped buying uranium in 1970. Production peaked in the 1980s before abruptly crashing. When the boom ended, abandoned uranium mine sites were left scattered across the Colorado Plateau. The Government Accountability Office estimated in 2012 that just inspecting sites on BLM land would cost $39 million. Determining who pays for the cleanup of abandoned mines can take millions of dollars and years in the court system. The EPA recently settled with the Navajo Nation for $600 million to clean up 94 mines on tribal lands.
So why go to the trouble and expense of cleaning them up? And what exactly is there to clean up? Though creeks in the Grand Canyon region have trace amounts of uranium, they rarely exceed EPA standards, which is 30 parts or less of uranium per billion. However, in 1995, UNLV hydrogeologist David Kreamer found uranium levels of 92.7 parts per billion from a creek running beneath an old uranium mine on the Canyon’s south rim. In 2010, fifteen springs and five wells in the area were found to have uranium levels in excess of safe levels. So what happens when the uranium ore is disturbed by mining and released into the watershed? No one knows. Scientists still are not sure exactly how water flows underground, especially in a watershed as large and complex as the Grand Canyon’s. Water can take centuries to seep through the mile thick layer of rock from canyon rim to the Colorado River below. Downstream from the canyon is Lake Mead and the rest of the Colorado River system, which provides drinking water to 20 million people in Nevada, California, and Arizona.
In the mid-2000s, uranium prices began recovering and uranium prospectors returned to northern Arizona. Although President Obama established a 20-year ban on new mines in 2012, the number of claims staked in northern Arizona outside National Park and Monument boundaries number into the thousands. “It’s just willy-nilly. People mine wherever the hell they want,” Grand Canyon through-hiker and retired engineer Rich Rudow told The Arizona Republic for a March 2017 article. “Is that dangerous? I don’t know…There’s this mine that’s been laying fallow since probably the ‘50s, and nobody’s asking any questions because nobody’s complaining.” At least, not yet.
It is the unknown which defines Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. Its few roads and little infrastructure leave a million acres of unknown wilderness for the public to explore. Also unknown is the impact of the numerous abandoned uranium mines in the area. Worse yet, its future is unknown by a Trump administration that has so far been unfriendly to the environment, to conservation, and the idea of protected public lands. Will this continue to be a place free from human exploitation, or will it be reduced to a bunch of holes in the ground with piles of uranium tailings and unknown ecological consequences?