In defense of the Grand Canyon

The greater Grand Canyon region includes a wealth of natural wonders—many, like the Kaibab squirrel, found nowhere else on Earth.  More than 100 kinds of rare plants and animals call the area home; its scenic vistas are one-of-a-kind.
 

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The desire to experience the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon draws tourists from across the country—people like me. Last November I was lucky enough to go on a 21 day float trip through the Grand Canyon. While there is a wealth of recreational opportunities, the draw for me was the peace and quiet, and the connection that this wild place offers to nature.  The spectacular scenery and the dark night skies are memories that will stay with me forever. It was the trip of a lifetime.
 
Of course while I was there I ate at local restaurants, stayed at local hotels and stocked up at local supply stores. A broken raft trailer even took us to a local car repair shop. All together tourists like me generate $687 million for the economy in northern Arizona each year, supporting 12,000 jobs.  Even during the recession the Grand Canyon has continued to provide consistent tourism revenue for local communities. In fact, Coconino County, home of the Grand Canyon, set a record in tourism revenue in 2010, even as statewide tourism was down.
 
Between the economic revenue and the unique landscape, the Grand Canyon region easily deserves the Obama administration’s decision to protect the plateaus surrounding the canyon from uranium mining.
 
The risks of uranium mining to the Grand Canyon area are well known.  New mines would fragment wild places with roads, pollute them with toxic dust and noise, and contaminate and deplete groundwater. This is all in addition to the fact that they will ruin the views, the vistas that make the Grand Canyon an American icon. The need for protection goes beyond our wild legacy.
 
Uranium mining also presents serious threats to our health. The Colorado River watershed provides drinking and irrigation water to people throughout the Southwest.  Significant contamination of the groundwater and soils with uranium could contaminate the drinking water of tens of millions of Americans.
 
The reasons to protect this special place go on, which is why protections are supported by water districts, businesses, local and tribal governments, scientists and hundreds of thousands of individuals from across the country. There is a deep connection between America’s wild places, our people, our national heritage, and the health of our communities. Places like the Grand Canyon are vital pieces of our culture, our history, and our economy.
 
Unfortunately, there will always be lawmakers like Senators McCain and Kyl who are willing to sacrifice our national treasures to benefit corporate polluters.  With the good news from the Obama administration on Monday, we recognize that permanent protection is needed for the areas around the North Kaibab Plateau, a key part of the Grand Canyon watershed, adjacent to the canyon itself.  Permanent protection for this area will safeguard important sources of groundwater, rare plants and animals, and local tourism economies and jobs. Together with the ban on uranium mining, the creation of a Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument encompassing the North Kaibab could ensure the Grand Canyon area we know and love remains intact for future generations to experience their own trips of lifetime.  
 
While many in Congress continue to neglect or even destroy our natural wonders, President Obama has begun working to protect public lands for the public good. One of President Obama’s first acts as President of the United States was to sign into law protections for 2 million acres of public lands. Last year the Administration announced the America’s Great Outdoor initiative to conserve and restore large landscapes. Now President Obama has an opportunity to build on his Grand Canyon legacy and the protection issued this week. I hope that he will consider the Grand Canyon Watershed as a national monument.
 
Frances Hunt is the director of the Sierra Club’s Resilient Habitats campaign, which works to protect the outdoors for this and future generations to enjoy, to restore healthy natural areas, and to give our native wildlife room to roam.

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