Utah ranchers hit Biden for creating national monument in Arizona

‘The Arizona Strip is historically, religiously, culturally more Utah than Arizona,’ one Utah mayor said.

(Kenny Holston | The New York Times) President Joe Biden steps down from Air Force One as arrives at Grand Canyon National Park Airport, Ariz., Aug 7, 2023.

America’s newest national monument may be in Arizona, but critics argue the Biden administration was out of line and out of touch to create it without first consulting with the Utahns who will be impacted the most.

During his visit to the Historic Red Butte Airfield on Tuesday, a few miles south of the Grand Canyon, President Joe Biden designated over 917,000 acres of federal forest and rangelands in northern Arizona as the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument.

The monument, situated along the Arizona Strip, aims to protect the Grand Canyon from more uranium mining, which Native Americans said would despoil many sacred ancestral sites, leach into aquifers and threaten water supplies. Its creation takes the 20-year moratorium President Barack Obama enacted on new uranium claims in the area in 2012 and makes the ban permanent.

Biden’s announcement drew swift condemnation from state and southern Utah officials, who characterized the new monument as yet another example of federal overreach and underhanded dealing.

“This monument designation is frustrating news, especially for residents of Utah along the Arizona Strip,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said. “As I’ve said many times before, massive, landscape-scale monuments like this are a mistake. These designations increase visitation without providing any additional resources for law enforcement and infrastructure to protect sensitive areas.

“They also needlessly restrict access to the critical minerals that are key to cell phones, satellites, U.S. defense systems and so many other American industries,” the governor added. “I still believe the only right way to create large new land designations is through Congress in coordination with local leaders and residents, a process that brings all voices to the table and offers the necessary funding.”

Déjà vu all over again

For some, the announcement evoked feelings of déjà vu. On Sept. 18, 1996, then-President Bill Clinton visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park and declared the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on 1.7 million acres in southern Utah.

Like Clinton and other presidents before him, Biden used his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to create the new national monument in Arizona. That rankles Utah state Rep. Phil Lyman, whose legislative district encompasses much of southern Utah, including San Juan and Kane counties.

“This is a total abuse of the Antiquities Act,” he said. “The act was never meant to be a landscape-wide management tool, and that’s what [the federal government] is using it as … [Congress] needs to wipe out this ridiculous abuse of power.”

While the monument is situated entirely in Arizona, its proximity to Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument and Washington and Kane counties has drawn the ire of local officials, who argue it will negatively impact area ranchers’ ability to graze their cattle on the Arizona Strip and siphon their water rights.

According to the Utah Farm Bureau, more than 45 Utah ranching families have grazing allotments within the monument’s boundaries. Kanab Mayor Colton Johnson said the land in question is geographically separated from the rest of Arizona by the Grand Canyon, noting that part of the monument can only be accessed from Utah by ranchers in Kane, Garfield and Washington counties.

“The Arizona Strip is historically, religiously, culturally more Utah than Arizona,” Johnson said. “The people who are using it are mostly from Utah … and you have some from Fredonia, Ariz., a few miles south of Kanab.”

Monumental disagreement

Chris Heaton, a Kanab City Council member and sixth-generation rancher who grazes his 200 head of cattle on roughly 48,000 acres he owns or leases on the Arizona Strip, is especially worried. He said the monument includes 1,000 acres of his private property.

Heaton characterizes Biden’s action as a federal land grab and frets it could put him out of business by restricting his grazing rights, seizing his property and jeopardizing his access to his water rights. In Arizona, ranchers own water rights, even when they are located on state or federal land.

“Ranchers have been using this land since we came here, and we have done a pretty dang good job of it,” Heaton said. “That’s why the [federal government] wants it, because they think they manage it better than we can.”

Heaton also called the notion that the national monument would protect indigenous people’s culture and sacred sites a smokescreen because the government will lure thousands of people to the region through advertising, which will result in the land being desecrated with graffiti and human waste.

In May, Heaton joined other City Council members in passing a unanimous resolution opposing the monument. Kane and Washington counties in Utah, Mohave County in Arizona, and the Utah and Arizona Farm bureaus, among others, also have opposed the monument.

Kane County Commissioner Celeste Meyeres is especially vociferous in her opposition.

“The sit-down-and-shut-up-if-you-don’t-agree narrative being touted is that there is unanimous support on the part of the neighboring governments and people of the tribal nations to move to a highly restrictive national monument designation,” she said.

“The uncomfortable reality,” Meyeres added, “which those pushing this latest land takeover are eager to ignore, is that the permanent loss of mining, logging and, likely, ranching, impacts the ability of actual locals to provide for their families, including our Navajo and Paiute friends.”

Setting the record straight

Amber Reimondo, energy director for the environmental nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust, said such assertions are just plain wrong. She said the monument will not involve the seizure of private property, threaten existing grazing or water rights or limit access to recreation.

“If these [claims] were true,” she said, “they’d have legitimate ground to stand on. But they are just not true.”

The Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument name is derived from the Havasupai word “baaj nwaavjo,” meaning “where Indigenous peoples roam,” and the Hopi word “i’tah kukveni,” which denotes “our ancestral footprints.”

The monument enjoys the unanimous support of the area’s 13 tribes, including the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab Paiute Tribe, Las Vegas Band of Paiute Tribe, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Navajo Nation, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Shivwits Band of Paiutes, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

Mayor Johnson said ranchers and hunters use the land the most and said the “hippie and environmentalist type people” tend to stick to better-known and more accessible tourist destinations.

Meyeres and other Utahns critical of the monument have lambasted the Biden administration and federal officials for not holding public hearings in Utah to answer people’s questions and allay their fears. The sole meeting, they argue, took place in July in Flagstaff, Arizona, and was noticed at the last minute, which made it difficult for many Utahns to attend and provide input.

Aside from drawing local fire, the new monument is garnering heated opposition nationally, especially over the permanent ban on any new claims for uranium mining on the land.

“If any doubts remained about the Biden administration’s stance on domestic mining, this unwarranted withdrawal puts them to rest,” National Mining Association spokesperson Ashley Burke stated in an email. “By continuing to block mineral-rich lands from responsible mining, this administration is imperiling our supply chains, robbing U.S. communities of high-paying jobs and community-supporting revenues, and enriching our adversaries. We already suffer from a near-complete import reliance for uranium — an urgent and critical vulnerability for the nation, which depends on Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for 60 percent of our imported uranium; establishing an unnecessary national monument will only deepen that dependence.”

Here again, Reimondo said, the rhetoric doesn’t square with reality.

“That’s false,” she said, “because the region around the Grand Canyon is home to, at most, 1.3% of our known uranium mine deposits throughout the country. So claims that this is taking a huge supply of uranium off the table are just not right.”

A historic moment

Native American tribes have lived on what is now monument lands since time immemorial, long before white settlers came to the region, Reimondo said

“This is a chance for them to have their ancestral homelands protected and to regain the stewardship role that was stolen from them years ago,” she added.

Carletta Tilousi, a member of the Havasupai Tribe and coordinator for the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition, called Biden’s monument designation a great day, one long in coming. She said members of the 13 tribes have roamed the monument land and Grand Canyon for centuries and have sacred archaeological and burial sites that mining and other industries have put in jeopardy.

Uranium mining, she said, poses a threat of the heavy metal seeping into the Redwall-Muavs aquifer, which the Havasupai people and others living downstream on the Colorado River rely on. Tilousi argues the monument designation is needed to avert that risk and avoid potential catastrophes.

“Today is a historical moment for us,” she said. “All the tribes are putting their foot down and saying, ‘Enough with the destruction of our sacred spaces, and let’s save the water.’ That’s our message.”

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