Controversy Over Proposed Grand Canyon Buffer

A plan proposed by an Arizona congressman to add a protective buffer zone around Grand Canyon National Park, covering an area larger than the park itself, has stirred up heated controversy over the land and its resources.

Representative Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.) has proposed a Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument covering 1.7 million acres of high desert and forest north and south of the national park. Specifically, it would include the Kaibab Plateau north of the park (both federal forest and range lands) and the Kaibab National Forest on the plateau and in the Tusayan region south of the park. The park itself covers 1.2 million acres.

The purpose of the proposed monument is to establish a permanent ban on new uranium mining claims near the park. Grijalva and many environmentalists hope that President Barack Obama designates the new monument before he leaves office in January 2017, should Congress not approve it.

Against the Monument

A number of Arizona politicians, including Representative Paul Gosar (R., Ariz.), have criticized Grijalva’s proposal as a serious threat to jobs, timber management, public access to the park, and state control over hunting. Gosar states that the plan would “kill jobs, stifle development, permanently prevent mining and future grazing leases, impose significant (off-roading) closures, and significantly restrict hunting, timber harvesting, and commercial recreational activities.”

In January, 15 current and former members of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission urged President Obama to leave the land around the Grand Canyon as it is, arguing that management belonged with the state, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. In a letter to the president, they wrote, “That partnership is not broken, and we do not believe another layer of bureaucracy is needed to conserve or ‘protect’ 1.7 million more acres on the Arizona Strip or Kaibab National Forest.”

Arizona Game and Fish Commission Chairman Kurt Davis argues that designation of the new monument would hinder the state’s ability to properly manage game species and other wildlife, and logging restrictions would lead to a dangerous build-up of combustible wood. Recalling the massive 2011 Wallow wildfire, which destroyed a half-million acres in eastern Arizona, Davis said, “That forest will burn down. I don’t know how many Wallow fires we need to have in Arizona before people realize these cataclysmic fires are hazardous to all of our species, endangered or not.”

Davis and other commissioners also argue that state management has greatly benefited the endangered California condor and black-footed ferret populations (which were reintroduced into the region), as well as the population of trophy mule deer.

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For the Monument

Supporters of the monument designation deny that it would cause the problems feared by opponents. They say that the designation would require a management plan developed with full public participation and comment, and that rights to public access, grazing, ranching, and timber management would be protected. Only mining would be prohibited—an essential action to take to protect the watershed from uranium contamination—and areas of cultural significance to Native Americans would be protected. Grijalva notes that the local tribes believe that uranium contamination may be responsible for cancer and other illnesses in tribe members. Tribes are also upset about mining activity near Red Butte, a sacred site south of the canyon.

The Grand Canyon proposal is one of many buffers being advocated by environmentalists for national parks around the country, including Yellowstone and Canyonlands. Roger Clark, program director for the Grand Canyon Trust, emphasizes that the Grand Canyon buffer zone is important to protect the springs and aquifers around the Colorado River. Clark notes that radioactive soils have recently been detected north of the national park. The only way to prevent the adverse effects of uranium mining, he argues, is to put “a permanent stop to new claims.”

Antiquities Act

Supporters of Grijalva’s plan do not expect the Republican-controlled Congress to approve it. In order to establish the new monument without congressional approval, President Obama would have the option of using the Antiquities Act. Previous presidents have used this act to designate protection for natural resources without congressional approval. However, the use of the act came into question when President Bill Clinton used it in 1996 to create Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which lies north of the proposed new monument. That action led to angry protests from Utah officials who were not consulted about it before hand. The ensuing political controversy has since caused politicians to shy away from new monument designations, according to Dan McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah.

McCool notes, however, that “predictions of dire economic gloom and doom didn’t happen” after Clinton’s designation of Grand Staircase. Rather, tourism to the site increased without having much effect on grazing. The only economic impact was a permanent ban on coal mining in the designated area—which was one of the main purposes for establishing the monument.