For many people the Grand Canyon is a wild and rugged place. Soaring Vermillion cliffs, pools of lush blue water give way to a harsh but inspiring Sonoran desert — it is without a doubt unlike any place on earth. Since as early as 1908, the Canyon was placed under federal protection and efforts to sustain its unwavering beauty have only intensified since. Today the Sierra Club and the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council are working hard to protect the area surrounding with the proposed Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument.
“The national park protects Grand Canyon proper but it doesn’t catch a lot of the wildlife corridors surrounding the park,” says Alicyn Gitlin director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. She is working tirelessly to protect 1.7 million acres of land surrounding the National Park. “There are many threats to this region including uranium mining, mineral extraction and wildlife fragmentation. This monument would be a way to protect the region and complete the whole picture.”
As America’s energy independence becomes more and more critical and our economy weakens from a myriad of factor, mining and land development on our public lands are becoming the largest threats to the health of endangered species and people alike.
According to the Grand Canyon Trust, the mining and milling boom in the Four Corners area lasted for about three decades before going bust in the 1980s. When the bottom dropped out of the uranium market, the industry went belly-up, leaving behind thousands of poisonous surface sites and deadly groundwater plumes.
In 2012, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar ordered a 20-year moratorium on thousands of new mining claims that threaten to industrialize watersheds, which drain directly into Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, but that is protection is only temporary.
“Most of the proposed area is off limits to Uranium mining for the next twenty years,” Gitlin says. “The monument designation would make new mines off limits for good. There are thousands of mining claims in the area threatening some of the most large, intact habitats we have in the southwest.”
Those habitats are already fragmented, leaving keystone species like mountain lions and Mexican grey wolves to fend for their dwindling numbers amid a cobweb of highways and unprotected landscapes.
“My organization has identified the fact that if we don’t have enough habitat to connect already protected areas, the fact that those areas are protected won’t be as important in the future,” argues Kim Vacariu with the Grand Canyon Wildlands Council. The council is one of the key players in the monument proposal. “Most of the species that inhabit protected areas are very important in the overall landscape. We’re looking at the extinction crisis that we’re facing and we’ve decided we have to connect those places.”
Vacariu is starting to see species begin to genetically implode because their habitat is becoming a checker board of protected and unprotected areas.
“If species do not have a chance to travel they are going to reproduce in a small population. If they interbreed, just as with human populations, you’re going to compromise the genetic structure.” Vacariu says.
The threat to native species intensifies through the other factors on the land. Mining, grazing and land development leave little elbow room for native species and threatens to contaminate the Colorado River watershed.
“The primary reason we added as much land [to the proposal] as we have is because the groundwater below this region supports dozens of spings” Gitlin explains. The Colorado and the springs that feed it are important water source for the Hualapi and Havasupai tribe and millions of Americans as well.
“If that water is contaminated, it will have a direct impact on these areas that are extremely important for biodiversity.”
Acquiring national monument status is the only way to protect the Grand Canyon Watershed. According to the draft proposal, National monument designation protects and reserves landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest as authorized by the Antiquities Act of 1906. The lands are still open to recreational use but they can’t be mined, drilled, developed or logged.
Each national monument proclamation is specific to its location. National monument designation for the Grand Canyon Watershed would permanently protect old-growth forests and native wildlife habitat. It would create wildlife corridors allowing animals to safely migrate and reduce road density in the region, and most importantly, permanently withdraw these lands from new uranium mining claims.
“We know that any protections that are in place right now are temporary, Vicariu says. Our current economic and political climate only makes matters worse and the Wildlands Council is crossing their fingers that any sort of protection will be passed before Obama leaves office. “Obama’s conservation record is abysmal. He can’t leave office without leaving a legacy. The Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument is critical habitat not only for species, but for Americans to be able to enjoy in the future.”