Biden signs order protecting Grand Canyon lands sacred to tribes

By Scott Streater | 08/08/2023 04:32 PM EDT

The president pledged that he will continue to use his authority to protect more of “America’s natural wonders.”

President Joe Biden holds a proclamation designating the Baaj Nwaavjo I'Tah Kukveni National Monument.

President Joe Biden holds a proclamation designating the Baaj Nwaavjo I'Tah Kukveni - Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument at the Red Butte Airfield in Arizona on Tuesday. John Locher/AP Photo

President Joe Biden signed a proclamation creating a national monument around the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona on Tuesday, while vowing to continue to use his authority to protect “America’s natural wonders.”

“Over the years, hundreds of millions of people have traveled to the Grand Canyon, awed by its majesty. But few are aware of its full history,” Biden said. “From time immemorial, more than a dozen tribal nations have lived, gathered, prayed on these lands.”

Flanked by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) and various Native American tribal leaders, Biden signed the proclamation establishing the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument at a ceremony in Red Butte, Ariz.


The location of the signing ceremony was a sacred site called Wii’i Gdwiisa by the Havasupai Tribe on the monument’s southern end.

The 917,618-acre national monument includes lands managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The federal agencies will share “co-stewardship of the monument” with tribal nations, according to the proclamation.

The national monument will protect lands important to a dozen Native American tribes, in part, from potential uranium mining. It will also help tell the "full American story" of the people who have called the region home for millennia, Biden said during his speech.

But, he noted, these tribes "were forced out" by the designation in 1919 of the Grand Canyon National Park.

"They fought for decades to be able to return to these lands, to protect these lands from mining and development, to clear them of contamination, to preserve their shared legacy for future generations," the president said. "I made a commitment as president to prioritize, respect tribal sovereignty and self-determination. To honor the solemn promises the United States made to tribal nations. I pledge to keep using all that available authority to protect tribal lands."

But the national monument designation has already been criticized by House Republicans who have called for a probe for information on how the monument boundaries were selected and how it will affect mining and energy development. They've argued it will block new uranium mining at a time when the U.S. should be looking to become more energy independent, especially given the prominence of Russia in the market to provide low-enriched uranium to nuclear reactors.

Nathan Rees, Arizona field coordinator for Trout Unlimited, noted the site has long garnered support from bipartisan sources, including hunters and anglers in the state.

“Given the toxic history of uranium mining in this region, we commend the leadership of this administration for enacting the wishes of millions of people hoping to preserve the beauty of this idyllic landscape," Rees said.

Although the monument boundaries will pause new mining claims in the region, the designation under the Antiquities Act will not necessarily curb all extraction, much less end the decadeslong fight between the mining industry and tribes and environmentalists.

Rees added: "As sportsmen and sportswomen, we value a multi-use approach on our public lands and insist on practical and science-based management of our natural resources. A national monument does just that.”

In addition to signing the monument proclamation, Biden also talked briefly about his signature climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, which he called the "biggest investment in climate conservation and environmental justice ever, anywhere, in the history of the world."

The IRA is expected to be Biden's main focus in subsequent visits this week to New Mexico and Utah, a trip the president is taking amid recent polling that shows a majority of the public disapproves of Biden’s handling of climate change, and that most don't know much about the climate law he signed last year.

The law includes $360 billion in clean energy and climate incentives.

"These are investments in our planet, our people and America itself," he said.

Biden briefly addressed his critics in his remarks, dismissing "MAGA Republicans" who he said want to undo the climate policies and land protection measures he's taken.

And he made no apologies for his other recent monument designations, which have included the 506,814-acre Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada that protects lands considered sacred to Yuman-speaking Native American tribes.

Sites like these "connect us to something bigger than ourselves," he said.

Reporter Jennifer Yachnin contributed.