President Joe Biden’s creation Tuesday of his fifth national monument protecting nearly 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon in Arizona will be the largest of his presidency by far, protecting a landscape that Native American tribes for years have said is crucial to their cultural identities.
The designation of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument will also involve those long-marginalized tribes in the management of the land.
“Many Havasupai tribal leaders have carried this battle on their shoulders over the decades, and we are the fortunate ones to experience this unprecedented time in which our historic lands, water, sacred objects and sites now hold the power and protection, which they rightfully deserve, under the supreme law of the land by the stroke of President Biden’s pen,” said Thomas Siyuja Sr., who chairs the Havasupai Tribe, one of a dozen that lobbied for the monument.
The sheer breadth of the newly protected lands around what is already one of the most celebrated places in the American West was cheered Tuesday by both the tribes and environmental groups. But it has already drawn pushback from House Republicans and the mining industry, which said the prohibition on new uranium mining claims within the monument showed the Biden administration isn’t serious about safeguarding national security at a time when nuclear energy could boost U.S. energy independence. (See related story.)
The size and scope of the new 917,618-acre national monument Biden will sign into existence Tuesday is not by accident, according to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead the agency that collectively oversees more than 700 million acres of federal lands.
“This president and this administration see Indian County,” Haaland told reporters on a Zoom call late Monday.
“Feeling seen means being appreciated for who we are: the original stewards of our shared lands and waters,” she said. “The Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument will help address past injustices and create a binding partnership between the United States and the region’s tribal nations in caring for these lands. It will help protect lands that many tribes refer to as their eternal home, a place of healing and a source of spiritual sustenance.”
She added, “Our work for Indian Country is far from over, but the progress we’ve accomplished under President Biden is historic.”
Here are three main things to know about the monument, as Biden signs a proclamation creating it Tuesday:
Tribes are going to help manage
The new monument includes lands around the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona that are managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
But the presidential proclamation establishing the national monument Biden is signing later Tuesday includes the establishment of a tribal commission that will include representatives of the dozen tribes in the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition that will act as “co-stewards” of the monument.
A senior Biden administration official told reporters during a Zoom call Monday that the commission “will help inform and guide what co-stewardship means and how it is implemented in the national monument.” The proclamation envisions “a very active partnership with the tribes,” the official said.
This is part of a recent trend, where last year BLM and the Forest Service signed a formal agreement with a tribal coalition to co-manage the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Tribes are also involved with BLM in the management of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada, which Biden created in March to protect lands considered sacred to Yuman-speaking Native American tribes.
Haaland touted “Indigenous knowledge” as being “increasingly valuable for the management of our public lands” during what she called the “climate crisis” linked to droughts and increased wildfires.
“I just want to state that it’s important we have tribal input into how these lands are being managed, and we’re proud and happy that we’re moving in that direction,” Haaland said.
In addition, another senior administration official told reporters that there would be a second advisory committee that will work with BLM and the Forest Service “to help inform management plans” for the monument. The committee will include representatives from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, state and local government leaders, ranchers, and members of the public.
The presidential proclamation is aimed at ensuring “maximum public involvement, including from tribes and others,” the official said.
The Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition, made up of a dozen tribes in multiple states, argues that much of the federal lands proposed for protection are culturally significant. Baaj Nwaavjo means “where tribes roam” for the Havasupai Tribe, and I’tah Kukveni means “our footprints” for the Hopi Tribe.
Ali Zaidi, the White House national climate adviser, told reporters late Monday on Air Force One that the decision by Biden to designate the monument acknowledges this tribal history.
“Folks know about the 300-million-year-old cliffs that line the Grand Canyon. What’s less known is the 300 cultural sites that make up this area,” Zaidi said, according to a transcript provided by the White House. “They tell a rich and important history. And it’s the reason why 12 tribes stepped up to request that this monument be declared. The president is going to take action to do just that.”
Monument helps 30×30 goals but doesn’t meet them
Environmentalists have pressed Biden throughout his first term to wield his authority under the Antiquities Act as a way to meet his aggressive conservation goals.
“National monuments are an important tool to address the overlapping crises of climate change, nature loss and access to nature,” said Jenny Rowland-Shea, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress. “President Biden is meeting the need and the call for more protected landscapes across the nation.”
Ahead of his recent spate of designations — including the 506,814-acre Avi Kwa Ame National Monument and 6,672-acre Castner Range National Monument near El Paso, Texas — the liberal think tank and the Monumental Shift coalition urged Biden to step up his pace on monument creation to match that of former President Barack Obama, who created 23 sites during his time in office.
But even the addition of new protections for millions of acres of existing public lands is unlikely to allow Biden to reach his goals of conserving 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030, which the administration calls its “America the Beautiful” program.
“Ecologically the way the country is structured, most of your public lands are in the West and if you want to conserve 30 percent of the lands and waters of the U.S. it needs to be coast to coast and region to region, mountains, deserts, plains, woodlands,” said David Willms, the National Wildlife Federation’s associate vice president for public lands.
He added: “You can’t designate your way to 30×30, it has to be through voluntary programs with private landowners and you have to invest in restoration of landscapes and habitats, it’s not all about these permanent protections.”
Willms emphasized that NWF supports the new monuments — which have come to fruition in several cases following decades of work by local advocates — but noted those designations are simply not enough to achieve the conservation goals.
Moreover, he added that without the database promised by the Biden administration, a project known as the “American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas,” it’s difficult to say how much remains to be protected.
“It’s still hard to count. Like how do you know what counts and doesn’t count for 30×30?” Willms said.
“The monument designation is just one piece of that larger bundle of sticks for 30×30,” he added.
According to the USGS Protected Areas Database, only 12.9 percent of the nation’s lands and inland waters are permanently protected in a natural state, as are 23 percent of its oceans.
Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, echoed that argument:
“There are certainly more landscapes deserving of protection using the Antiquities Act, and President Biden will have opportunities to extend his conservation legacy over the next year,” Weiss said. “At the same time, we cannot and should not attempt to reach 30×30 just on federal lands. Protecting 30 percent of America’s lands and waters will require a concerted and coordinated effort across national, state, local, Tribal, and private lands.”
The White House’s Council on Environmental Quality chief of staff, Matt Lee-Ashley, framed the monument as “another big step” in both the 30×30 goals as well as locally and Indigenous-led conservation efforts.
“Since day one, the president has led the most ambitious climate and conservation agenda in history — and the historic investments he secured for conservation through the Inflation Reduction Act are helping encourage and accelerate critical community-led conservation work across the country,” Lee-Ashley said.
Biden’s probably not done
Biden’s latest monument designation marks his seventh use of the Antiquities Act during his tenure in the White House — including the expansion of two monuments and designation of five new sites.
According to statistics compiled by the Congressional Research Service, that puts the first-term Democrat just behind his predecessors, 16 of whom created new monuments during their own tenures.
A total of 17 presidents created or enlarged 234 monuments before Biden took office. Former President Gerald Ford expanded existing monuments but didn’t establish any original sites, and only Presidents George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon did not use their Antiquities Act authorities at all.
That puts Biden only halfway to the average of about 14 designations per president who utilized the Antiquities Act.
But the Sierra Club’s Ian Brickey noted the total lands protected by Biden in his new monuments, which also include the 5.7-acre Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument at three sites in Illinois and Mississippi and the 54,000-acre Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument — is more than any other recent president in their first term.
“Through new national monument designations alone, he has added about 1.5 million acres to that protected total,” Brickey said. “This is a good start — more than his predecessors [Obama and Trump] had designated in their first terms combined — and the White House needs to keep up the momentum and increase the pace.”
There could be more designations, and expansions of existing monuments, on the way.
Notable proposals for Biden to consider include establishing the Dolores River Canyon Country National Monument in Colorado, as well as expanding the San Gabriel Mountains and Berryessa Snow Mountain national monuments in California.
Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s S. 636, would establish the Dolores River National Conservation Area on about 52,000 acres of BLM lands and the Dolores River Special Management Area on about 15,000 acres of Forest Service lands in western Colorado.
Two senior officials with BLM and the Forest Service testified at an Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee hearing last month that both agencies support the bill.
In June, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) formally asked Biden to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to add 109,167 acres to the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in Southern California, near Los Angeles.
Padilla has also sponsored S. 683, the “Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument Expansion Act,” to add nearly 4,000 acres of BLM lands to the monument.
The outdoors industry has a list of monuments it wants to see Biden designate in the near future.
Last month, a coalition of groups that includes REI Co-op, the North Face, Patagonia and the Outdoor Industry Association launched the Mobilizing for Monuments campaign.
The campaign aims to keep the pressure on Biden through a “nationwide strategy to expand nature-based solutions to climate change, large-scale landscape protections and outdoor access,” said Shoren Brown, vice president of public affairs for the Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit group that coordinates outdoors businesses on issues and helped organize the Mobilizing for Monuments campaign.
“In partnership with our members — which includes companies from outdoor businesses, to brewers, to renewable energy companies and technology firms — we will work alongside locally driven monument campaigns to protect millions of acres in places like California, Colorado, and beyond,” Brown said.
Clarification: This story was updated after publication to clarify Sierra Club’s Ian Brickey’s statement comparing presidential monument designations.