n a landmark decision, the White House has declared nearly one million acres of public land adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park as the country’s newest national monument. This move, aimed at honoring Indigenous homelands in northern Arizona, carries significant implications for environmental conservation, historical preservation, and Indigenous rights.

Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument

The designation, officially named Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument, holds profound significance. Translated as “where Indigenous peoples roam” in the Havasupai language and “our ancestral footprints” in the Hopi language, the name encapsulates the essence of the Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, expressed her gratitude for President Biden’s commitment to Indigenous peoples and the understanding of their unbreakable ties to ancestral homelands. Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, emphasized the sacred nature of these lands, drawing attention to the historical displacement of the Havasupai people after the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park in 1919.

The Tribal Effort and Presidential Support

The decision to declare the monument is the culmination of a lobbying effort by a dozen tribes with historical ties to the region. A proposal was unveiled in April 2023, with support from influential figures like Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema and Representative Raúl Grijalva. Secretary Haaland’s visit to the proposed monument site in May solidified the Administration’s commitment to addressing past injustices and fostering a partnership with tribal nations in caring for these lands.

A tribal commission, established through the White House proclamation, will play a pivotal role in guiding the development and implementation of the monument’s management plan. The recognition of the cultural and historical importance of these lands underscores a step towards reconciliation and environmental stewardship.

A Pledge for Environmental Conservation

The monument’s designation brings forth a permanent moratorium on new mining operations, echoing President Barack Obama’s 20-year ban initiated in 2012. While existing mining claims predating the moratorium will remain, the move aims to protect the region from the potential environmental hazards posed by mining activities.

The legacy of uranium mining in the area, with its health repercussions on Native communities, makes this decision a crucial step in ensuring the well-being of both the environment and the people. The detrimental effects of uranium leaching into groundwater and rendering waters unsafe for drinking highlight the urgency of safeguarding these lands.

Controversy and Economic Considerations

Notwithstanding the monumental decision, there has been opposition, particularly from Republican figures like Representative Paul Gosar, who argue that such declarations circumvent congressional authority. Proponents of uranium mining also express concerns about missed economic opportunities for the local population.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 empowers the president to declare monuments on federal lands containing historic landmarks or objects of historic or scientific interest. The delicate balance between environmental conservation, economic considerations, and Indigenous rights remains a complex challenge.

Grand Canyon National Monument

With approximately six million annual visitors, the Grand Canyon stands as one of America’s most renowned parks. Brenda Mallory, chair of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, describes the new monument as an extension of the Grand Canyon, maintaining the landscape, species, and ecology that visitors associate with the iconic landmark while preserving the crucial tribal history embedded in the area.

In conclusion, the declaration of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument is a momentous step towards reconciling historical injustices, preserving natural habitats, and fostering a harmonious relationship between the U.S. and Indigenous communities. As the monument stands as a testament to unity in conservation, it marks a crucial chapter in the ongoing narrative of safeguarding our shared heritage.

Closer Look at the Monument’s Ecological Significance

Beyond the political and cultural dimensions, the newly designated national monument encompasses vast natural landscapes that contribute significantly to the region’s ecological balance. The site not only serves as a haven for the critically endangered California condor but also plays a vital role as a watershed for the Colorado River, providing water to 40 million Americans.

The diverse habitat supports various species, including the iconic desert bighorn sheep and birds such as the threatened western yellow-billowed cuckoo and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. The delicate ecological balance of this area has been preserved for centuries, and the national monument status ensures the continuation of these vital ecosystems.

Cultural Resilience

The monument’s inclusion of sacred sites, particularly Red Butte-Wii’i Gwdwiisa, holds immense cultural significance for the Havasupai people. Red Butte, considered their birthplace, is a site where the Havasupai traditionally camped in the winter before their forced relocation by the U.S. government. The monument’s establishment acknowledges and seeks to rectify the historical injustices inflicted upon Indigenous communities.

Carletta Tilousi, the Grand Canyon tribal coalition coordinator and a Havasupai tribe member, emphasizes the deep connection the Havasupai people have with the land. Red Butte-Wii’i Gwdwiisa is not merely a location; it is an integral part of their creation stories, symbolizing the belonging of the land to Mother Earth. The fear of mining operations puncturing the metaphorical lungs of Mother Earth echoes the profound environmental concerns of the Havasupai community.

A Coalition’s Vision

The journey towards the establishment of the national monument began in April 2023 when a coalition of twelve tribes with historical ties to the Grand Canyon unveiled their proposal. During a press conference, Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema and Representative Raúl Grijalva, both Democrats, voiced their support for the initiative, underscoring the bipartisan nature of this monumental decision.

The coalition’s vision goes beyond political affiliations, aiming to safeguard not only the natural wonders but also the cultural heritage embedded in the landscape. Secretary Haaland’s impactful visit to the proposed monument site in May provided a firsthand understanding of the deep connection between the Havasupai people and their ancestral lands. The immersive experience, including hikes to Supai and visits to the reservation’s waterfalls, solidified the Administration’s commitment to honoring and protecting the ancestral homelands of twelve sovereign tribal nations.

The White House Proclamation and Future Management Plans

The forthcoming White House proclamation, expected to be signed by President Biden, will not only formalize the monument’s establishment but also lay the groundwork for future conservation efforts. A tribal commission, integral to the proclamation, will play a crucial role in providing guidance on the development and implementation of the monument’s management plan.

This inclusive approach signifies a departure from historical practices that marginalized Indigenous voices in land management decisions. By actively involving tribal nations in the decision-making process, the monument’s management plan aims to strike a balance between environmental conservation and respecting the cultural significance of the lands.

Uranium Mining:

The permanent moratorium on new mining operations within the monument’s boundaries addresses a dark chapter in the region’s history—uranium mining. President Obama’s initial 20-year ban in 2012 set the stage for this decisive move, signaling a commitment to rectifying past environmental and health repercussions.

However, existing mining claims predating the moratorium pose challenges, and two approved mining operations within the monument’s boundaries could still operate. The legacy of uranium mining around the Grand Canyon has left a trail of health issues within Native communities, with elevated cases of cancer and respiratory illnesses among those who worked in the mines during the Cold War era.

Data from the U.S. Geological Survey further reveals the environmental impact, indicating areas around the Grand Canyon where uranium leached into groundwater, rendering waters unsafe for drinking. The opposition from Arizona Representative Paul Gosar and uranium mining proponents underscores the complexity of balancing environmental conservation with economic considerations.

The Antiquities Act and Congressional Authority

The opposition to the national monument proposal, particularly from Representative Paul Gosar, raises questions about the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. Critics argue that presidential declarations, enabled by the Antiquities Act of 1906, circumvent congressional authority, limiting the checks and balances necessary for such significant decisions.

However, proponents assert that the Antiquities Act empowers the president to protect lands with historic or scientific interest, providing a forward-looking perspective. The delicate dance between safeguarding private property rights, pre-existing mining claims, and ensuring environmental conservation adds complexity to the legal and political dimensions of the decision.

Navigating Opportunities and Challenges

The economic considerations surrounding the national monument designation are central to the debate. While proponents argue for the preservation of natural resources and the long-term economic benefits of tourism and environmental conservation, opponents, particularly those in favor of uranium mining, lament the missed economic opportunities for the region.

The question of economic development versus environmental preservation is a perennial challenge faced by policymakers. Striking a balance that respects Indigenous rights, preserves the ecological integrity of the region, and fosters sustainable economic development requires nuanced and collaborative solutions.

Legacy of Conservation

As one of America’s most iconic parks, the Grand Canyon has long been a symbol of natural beauty and preservation. Approximately six million visitors annually bear witness to its breathtaking views, prompting President Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 to proclaim, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it.”

Brenda Mallory, chair of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality, aptly describes the new monument as an extension of the Grand Canyon. While maintaining the landscape, species, and ecology that visitors associate with the iconic landmark, the monument also recognizes and upholds the important tribal history embedded in the extended Grand Canyon.

In conclusion, the declaration of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni Grand Canyon National Monument is a multifaceted decision that intertwines environmental conservation, historical justice, and Indigenous rights. With its far-reaching implications, this monumental move signifies a commitment to preserving our natural and cultural heritage for future generations. As the nation embraces this new chapter, it sets a precedent for collaborative and inclusive approaches to land management, paving the way for a harmonious coexistence between nature, culture, and progress.