US President Joe Biden has designated a large swathe of land near the Grand Canyon as a national monument, fulfilling a years-old push by environmentalists and Indigenous communities to preserve the area.
The Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument – Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – will conserve more than 404,000 hectares (one million acres) of public lands around Grand Canyon National Park in the state of Arizona, the White House said on Tuesday.
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It will protect thousands of sites that are sacred to Indigenous nations in the area, including the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe and Navajo Nation.
“Baaj Nwaavjo” means “where Indigenous peoples roam” in the Havasupai language, the White House said, and “i’tah kukveni” means “our ancestral footprints” in the Hopi language.
“Over the years, hundreds of millions of people have travelled [to] the Grand Canyon, awed – awed – by its majesty. But fewer are aware of its full history,” Biden said during a news conference in Arizona announcing the designation.
“Since time immemorial, more than a dozen tribal nations have lived, gathered and prayed on these lands. But some 100 years ago they were forced out,” he said.
“They fought for decades to be able to return to these lands, to protect these lands from mining and development, to clear them from contamination, to preserve their shared legacy for future generations.”
This is Biden’s fifth national monument designation since he took office in early 2021. National monuments are established by US presidents through their authority in the Antiquities Act of 1906 to protect lands and waters deemed to be of national importance.
For years, Indigenous communities in the US Southwest have been urging the government to protect areas around the Grand Canyon, citing their cultural significance and threats posed by mining and other commercial activities to the local environment.
The Colorado River basin – which stretches across seven western US states, including Arizona, Nevada and Colorado – also is facing an historic drought, making access to clean water particularly important.
“The Canyon is a part of each and every Havasupai person. It is our home, it is our land, and our water source, and our very being,” Havasupai Tribe Vice Chair Edmond Tilousi said in April as Indigenous leaders renewed their call for the designation.
“Designating these areas as a National Monument will protect them from contamination, destruction, or exploitation and the other harmful effects of mining. We simply cannot live without these clean waters.”
Environmentalists also had urged the Biden administration to protect the area around the Grand Canyon from potential uranium mining.
Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said Tuesday’s designation means the watershed would be protected “now and forever”.
“We’ve said time again that uranium mining has no place near this national park landscape and its waters that millions of people rely on for survival,” Pierno said in a statement.
“These lands and waterways have sustained life for centuries, and yet have remained under attack from toxic uranium mining. Today’s designation puts an end to this.”
Mining companies and some local landowners and officials had argued against the national monument designation, saying mining in the area is in the interests of the country.
“Mining is self-sufficiency,” Arizona State Representative Cory McGarr said this week, as reported by The Arizona Republic newspaper, as Republican legislators in the state voted to formally oppose the national monument designation.
“This has nothing to do with the environment, this doesn’t have anything to do with cultural lands or anything like that,” McGarr said. “Those are excuses that they’re using to make sure we are beholden to other nations.”
Buster Johnson, a supervisor in Arizona’s Mohave County, also told The Associated Press that the Biden administration’s decision felt politically driven. “We need uranium for the security of our country,” Johnson said. “We’re out of the game.”