Key Democrat seen as waffling on Grand Canyon proposal

By Phil Taylor | 12/01/2015 07:28 AM EST

Some activists believe Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) has backtracked on her support for a national monument that would protect 1.7 million acres of old-growth pine forests, wildlife habitat and Native American sacred sites surrounding Grand Canyon National Park, drawing concern from environmentalists who back the proposal.

The three-term congresswoman, who represents most of northern and eastern Arizona, has yet to support H.R. 3882, a bill by House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to designate the monument (Greenwire, Oct. 13). That’s despite Kirkpatrick earlier this year urging President Obama to proclaim those lands as a national monument under the Antiquities Act.

Kirkpatrick’s hesitation could deter Obama from using his executive powers to protect the lands before leaving office. The White House is likely to follow Kirkpatrick’s lead because her district encompasses most of the lands, and particularly given that she is vying for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) seat next November.

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"Now that the legislation has been introduced, she is in the process of reviewing it and getting further input from constituents and stakeholders," said an emailed statement from Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for Kirkpatrick.

National monuments can be declared by Congress or by presidents under the Antiquities Act, though the latter path is more controversial because it gives the executive branch absolute power over how the monument is to be managed.

Obama has used the 1906 law to establish or expand 19 national monuments, withdrawing more than 2 million acres of public lands from future drilling or mining.

Grijalva’s bill, which he unveiled Oct. 12, was introduced, in part, to clarify that existing land uses including hunting, fishing, grazing and wildfire management could continue within a Grand Canyon monument, and to ensure that local tribes would be given an active role in how sacred places are protected.

More specifically, it was meant to provide a blueprint for a presidential proclamation, given that the bill stands little chance of passing the Republican-controlled Congress.

It’s clear that Kirkpatrick once supported Obama declaring a monument. She said so explicitly in a Jan. 28 letter to Obama that was co-signed by Grijalva and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) (E&ENews PM, Jan. 29).

Whether she still supports it is open to interpretation. Johnson declined to address that question.

Kirkpatrick sent mixed signals during a meeting last Wednesday in Flagstaff, according to environmental activists who attended.

Robin Silver, a co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said Kirkpatrick "acknowledged that she has withdrawn her support for the Grand Canyon monument."

Yet others said the congresswoman was simply saying she wanted to hear more input from constituents before taking a position on Grijalva’s bill.

"What she said is she was not signing onto the bill yet," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, who listened to the meeting by phone.

"She was looking to hear more on it from the people of Arizona," Bahr said. "She did not mention anything about withdrawing."

Still, environmentalists are concerned that Kirkpatrick has yet to back Grijalva’s bill, given that it essentially mimics the boundaries of the monument that Kirkpatrick had earlier endorsed.

"In her effort to hedge — and not make any statements in support so as not to incite her right flank — she may have conveyed to the group Wednesday a sense that she’s not likely to support it," said Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director at the Grand Canyon Trust.

Kirkpatrick’s letter last January was "unambiguous," Clark added, "so for her to be noncommittal at this point after being so committed in January is definitely something worth pointing out."

Kirkpatrick may be playing her political cards carefully.

In a March op-ed in the Tucson Sentinel, Kirkpatrick acknowledged pushback from some constituents over her support for a presidential monument designation, though she did not waver in her position.

The 1,600 comments she received from constituents were "overwhelmingly in favor of a national monument designation," she wrote.

"But it’s also clear that the path forward must be built on common ground among our sportsmen, conservationists, tribes and fellow citizens," she added.

The presidential monument proposal is opposed by McCain, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), whose 4th District contains a sliver of the land in the monument proposal.

Gosar has also strongly opposed Grijalva’s bill, accusing him of leveraging tribes to advance an extreme environmental agenda. The bill has been formally endorsed by the Hualapai, Havasupai and Hopi tribes and Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and has garnered support from other tribal leaders.

"It is a deceitful attempt to provide political cover for the president should he fail to recognize significant opposition from local Arizona communities and once again abuse his power with one stroke of a pen under the Antiquities Act," Gosar said in a statement. "I encourage the southern Arizona Congressman to focus on killing jobs and locking up millions of acres of land in his own district."

Arizona’s Game and Fish Commission has voted to oppose the monument, while five former commissioners have lent support to the proposal.

With Grijalva’s bill dead on arrival in the House, the proposal is squarely in Obama’s hands.

If Kirkpatrick remains on the fence, it’s less likely Obama would take action — particularly before Election Day.

Yet monument proponents believe Kirkpatrick could score political points by backing the monument.

A poll released last winter by Colorado College found that 73 percent of respondents in Arizona supported protecting "just over one million acres of existing public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon as a National Monument," which "would make permanent the current ban on uranium and other mining in these lands."

And a study released last month by BBC Research & Consulting and paid for by the Center for Western Priorities found that passage of Grijalva’s bill would preserve about $51 million per year in economic activity.

"From our perspective, supporting land protection is a good thing for someone running statewide," Bahr said. "I would expect [Kirkpatrick’s] going to be supportive."

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