Every year, Americans of all political persuasions make pilgrimages to Grand Canyon National Park, which will mark its 100th anniversary on Feb. 26. They stand in awe at the rim of this natural wonder, grateful for the forebears who preserved it for generations — and, for the most part, unaware that the Grand Canyon isn’t nearly as protected as people think it is.
The clock is ticking on a 20-year ban on new mining claims on about 1 million acres of public land surrounding the national park. Thousands of uranium claims were put on hold in 2012 because of mounting evidence that uranium mining in the headwaters of Grand Canyon creeks can contaminate life-giving seeps and springs in the desert basins below.
After examining evidence of harmful effects, five federal agencies recommended the temporary halt to new uranium claims. Ken Salazar, then the interior secretary, said his precautionary decision would allow more time to assess the impacts of active and abandoned mines, adding, “We have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations.”
The Senate recently voted 92 to 8 to approve the Natural Resources Management Act. Among other things, it protects Yellowstone National Park from mining on adjacent public lands.
Though the bill doesn’t benefit the canyon, this burst of bipartisanship bodes well for Grand Canyon National Park as it approaches its 100th birthday. It’s time for the new Congress to reach across the aisle and carry on our long bipartisan tradition of stewardship for this crown jewel of the National Park System.
It was a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, who first proclaimed the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908. After bipartisan votes in both houses, President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, signed the bill establishing the Grand Canyon as a national park in 1919. A half-century later, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona introduced the bill that nearly doubled the size of Grand Canyon National Park, while returning about 188,000 acres of aboriginal homeland to the Havasupai Tribe. Arizona congressman Mo Udall, a liberal Democrat, helped unite bipartisan support for the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act, and Republican President Gerald Ford signed it into law in 1975.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain later teamed up with Udall and others from both sides of the aisle in passing the National Parks Overflight Act of 1987. The two leaders joined Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley in cosponsoring the Grand Canyon Protection Act in 1992, one of the last laws that Udall signed on to before retiring. McCain subsequently thanked “my friend Mo Udall” for being “a strong protector of the pristine beauty of the Grand Canyon and our other national parks.”
The people living closest to the canyon are fervent in supporting the mining ban. Ninety-six percent of Arizonans agree that keeping public lands and waters healthy benefits the Arizona economy and quality of life. And nearly two-thirds support the ban on new uranium claims around the Grand Canyon, including 56 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of independents and 69 percent of Democrats.
In particular, the Havasupai people — who live at the bottom of the canyon and whose sole source of regularly accessible water is at risk — want to permanently ban uranium mining. They are joined by Hopi, Navajo, Hualapai, Zuni and other tribal nations in opposing the desecration of their homeland.
Now is the time to protect the Grand Canyon’s sacred waters from permanent uranium-mining pollution. As we prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park, let’s remember that good stewardship, like good citizenship, strengthens and unites our nation.
Let’s challenge all of America’s elected officials to become better caretakers not only of the Grand Canyon but also of all public lands. In this new Congress, let’s sit down and see what we can do — together — to permanently ban uranium mining around the Grand Canyon as our gift to the next generation. Let’s carry the tradition of bipartisan stewardship into the Grand Canyon’s next century.
Cindy McCain is the widow of Sen. John McCain and chairwoman of the board of trustees of the McCain Institute. Mark Udall is the son of the late Rep. Mo Udall and served as a Democratic congressman and senator from Colorado.