The Grand Canyon is a great natural treasure, one of the most recognizable and revered landscapes on earth. And yet, despite its universally beloved status, it is threatened by the Trump administration. A recently released government report reveals that President Donald Trump and his Cabinet are considering lifting the ban on uranium mining on the federally owned public lands that surround Grand Canyon National Park.
We are former superintendents of Grand Canyon National Park. We managed the park with pride for current and future generations of the American public — the park’s true owners. We are dismayed that the current administration is considering putting one of the most iconic places in our nation, indeed in the world, at risk of contamination from uranium mining.
In December, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Department of Interior’s 2012 decision to bar new uranium mining on about a million acres of land around the Grand Canyon for 20 years. Although we applaud the court’s decision, the Grand Canyon is still under threat, and the Trump administration’s push for uranium mining poses a serious threat to our beloved public lands.
The court’s ruling does not stop the Trump administration from trying to reverse the 2012 moratorium, as proposed in the US Forest Service document in November. Furthermore, the administration recently announced a new push for increased domestic mining of “critical minerals,” which according to the President’s executive order would likely encompass uranium.
Almost 6 million people from all over the world visited the Grand Canyon in 2016, making it one of the most sought-after parks for those in search of awe-inspiring landscapes, cultural history and solitude. The canyon is also a sustainable economic generator, with visitors generating nearly $1 billion a year for the local economy. All of that would be threatened if the Trump administration pushes to lift the 2012 moratorium.
The goal of the 2012 temporary ban was simple — protect the Grand Canyon and the millions of people in the Colorado River Basin that depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation and other uses.
The ban also allows researchers to study the potential consequences of uranium pollution and ensures that the waters and landscapes of the region are protected in the interim. Notably, the ban was widely supported by Native American tribes and communities adjacent to the park. It is a thoughtful and reasonable approach to carefully manage and protect the watershed around Grand Canyon National Park, and it also provides the opportunity to thoughtfully revisit the issue in 20 years.
Over the past few months, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has moved to increase drilling on public lands with little regard for the impact on the environment and local communities. In adherence to Zinke’s recommendations, Trump recently signed two proclamations rescinding the national monument status of almost 80% of the Bears Ears National monument and around 45% of the Grand-Staircase Escalante Monument.
While Zinke’s motivations for seeking to reduce the monuments has hinged on curtailing “government overreach,” in reality, Zinke’s decision is deeply unpopular with the public: More than 98% of all comments received during the Interior Department’s 60-day comment period expressed support for maintaining or expanding national monuments. This lack of public support for the decision suggests that Zinke was more moved by politically expedient forces: special interests who want to drill and mine in the monuments and out-of-the mainstream politicians such as Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah who have been attacking the Antiquities Act for years.
Secretary Zinke’s attack on public lands continued the day after the monuments announcement, when the Interior Department released a final report detailing his recommendations for shrinking or changing management plans for other national monuments — opening them up to “traditional uses,” such as coal mining, oil drilling, and logging. To put it lightly, these proposals and decisions coming from Secretary Zinke and the administration are worrisome to those of us who have dedicated our lives to the protection of all these special places.
On May 6, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and delivered one of his most famous speeches, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
Secretary Zinke has endeavored to mold himself as a conservationist in Roosevelt’s image, and even has a bust of the conservationist President in his office. Certainly, Roosevelt, armed with concerns about uranium mining, would have decided in favor of protecting the Grand Canyon.