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Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument: A Uranium Miner’s Dream

“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.

Grand CanyonThose 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?

National Monuments Under Attack

Ready, Aim…

Imagine the Grand Canyon with uranium mines on the rim.  Or the spectacular view of the Tetons from highway 191 (you’ve seen the pictures) blocked by oil wells or million dollar mansions.

Grand CanyonOn April 26th, President Trump announced what many in the environmental community considered an open declaration of war. After months of saber rattling on environmental issues, Trump signed an executive order directing his Secretary of Interior to commence a “review” of National Monuments set aside under the Antiquities Act by the last three presidential administrations. The review could result in the removal of the designation from some established Monuments or reduce existing Monuments in size. It is an unprecedented act, and legal experts (and administration officials themselves) are not sure it is even possible for a president to revoke the National Monument designation. It has never been attempted by a president, and has only been done by Congress a handful of times.

The Antiquities Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, in June 1906. The legislation obligated federal agencies to preserve and protect historic, scientific, commemorative, and culturally significant sites on federal land. It also gave the president a means to quickly protect as National Monuments landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest. It was the result of concerns in the latter part of the 19th century over looting and damage from commercial souvenir hunters and the general public to America’s archeological sites, and was the first legal protection of cultural and natural resources in the United States. The first use of the Act was by Roosevelt in September, 1906, when he created Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. It has been used an additional 150 times by fifteen other presidents. Thirty two sites originally protected as National Monuments have since become National Parks, including what many consider the crown jewel of the National Park system, the Grand Canyon. Wyoming’s iconic Grand Teton National Park, one of the most photographed landscapes in the United States, was also once a National Monument.

 

A “Massive Federal Land Grab”

In announcing the Executive Order, Mr. Trump vowed to “end another egregious use of government power,” and called the process of establishing the Monuments a “massive Federal land grab.”  Yet under the Antiquities Act, new National Monuments can only be created from land already owned by the Federal government, and no private land or state land was seized in creating the Monuments, so it is unclear exactly what Mr. Trump meant by the comment—if he even knows.  Mr. Trump perhaps offered a clue to his intentions when he said, “The Antiquities Act does not give the federal government unlimited power to lock up millions of acres of land and water, and it’s time that we ended this abusive practice.”  Some environmental groups have understood that comment to mean Mr. Trump’s aims are to remove protections from resource extraction, such as logging and oil drilling, that the lands currently enjoy as National Monuments.  Trump added that he wanted state governors and local constituents to have ultimate control over what happens to areas such as those under review.  “Today, we are putting the states back in charge,” he explained.Tetons

In a convoluted way, Mr. Trump poses a valid question.  Should the Federal government cede management of public lands—or the land itself—to the states?  As it stands, the federal government owns about 640 million acres of land, which is around 28% of the total land in the United States.  Most of this is in the West and was acquired from foreign countries well over a century ago.  Congress, which has authority over the land under Article IV of the Constitution, has charged four government agencies with management of 95% of it.  These agencies include the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service.  While it’s impossible to determine how much money the federal government spends managing the land, in 2016 Congress appropriated more than $15 billion to the four agencies.  And therein lies the reason the states have not taken over management of much of the land.  A recent article in the Billings Gazette suggested the cost for just Montana to take over management of the 25 million federal acres within its borders would be $500 million dollars.  This represents five percent of the state’s $10 billion budget, and lawmakers there just concluded a very tense budget battle, making difficult decisions and setting painful priorities just to make sure the state could continue to pay its bills.  This is a common theme throughout the West and the nation, with many states facing dramatic budget shortfalls and making cuts in essential services.  To be fair, the federal government has its own budgetary and spending issues.  However, what the federal government spends on the four land management agencies is less than one half of one percent (0.375% to be exact) of the nation’s budget.  In comparison, the US spends almost $600 billion dollars on the military, accounting for almost 55% of the nation’s discretionary spending.  The United States’ defense budget is the largest in the world and is more than the next seven countries combined.  Whereas the federal government’s funding of public lands is a matter of setting national priorities, state governments may not be able to adequately manage it, leading to potentially disastrous consequences.  Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Few states can afford to take care of these lands the way we, the people of the entire nation, do by, say, paying to fight fires or maintain roads. Once cash-strapped states have squeezed all they can out of budgets for schools, highways and other essential services, they’ll sell off those formerly public lands to the highest industrial and corporate bidders.”

This is only the latest move by an administration that has been hostile to environmental causes since the early days of its campaign.  From naming climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, an agency he sued multiple times as attorney general of Oklahoma, to slashing EPA’s funding in the proposed federal budget, to killing President Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan, to threatening to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trump Administration is setting a clear agenda when it comes to environmental policy.  Outdoor clothier and retailer Patagonia has already announced plans to sue the government should any Monument be delisted or altered, and a bevy of environmental organizations are falling in line behind.  If the president wanted a fight with the entire outdoor and environmental community, he now has his hands full with one.

 

Review This Mr. Trump

Used with permission under creative common license CC BY-SAInterior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review process will reportedly take 120 days.  Throughout that time, I will be releasing a feature on each of the National Monuments that are being reviewed by the Trump administration.  These features will be posted on my website and also on Medium.com.  I’ll provide a background on each Monument; detail the wildlife, archeological treasures, and natural wonders that each Monument protects; analyze the review process undertaken by the presidential administration in office at the time of the Monument’s designation; and describe what is at stake should the Monument be delisted.  I will also provide updates when more is learned regarding each Monument’s possible fate.  In an age when truth—and now our National Monuments—are under attack from forces spewing “alternative facts,” it’s important for you to have accurate information from which to form opinions and judgments.

Mr. Trump’s goal is to “end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of all of the states, the people of the United States.”  His rhetoric is a demonstration of a common misconception plaguing our country—that federal lands are somehow not ours.  The National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests—these are already OUR places, OUR land.  We do not need it returned to us.  They already belong to you and they belong to me, and they deserve our continued protection.  Our National Park system has been described as America’s Best Idea.  We cannot let one lunatic destroy our heritage and our unique places just so some soulless corporation can make a few bucks drilling for oil.

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