Obama pressed to create new Grand Canyon monument

Obama pressed to create new Grand Canyon monument
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Democrats and American Indian tribes are ramping up their pressure on President Obama to bypass Congress and unilaterally designate a new national monument to protect 1.7 million acres near the Grand Canyon.

The backers of the proposed Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, led by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) want to indefinitely protect the area from uranium mining that they say would hurt the Colorado River watershed, spots sacred to Indian tribes and recreation activities.

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But to Republicans, the proposal represents another land grab by a president who has liberally used his authority under the Antiquities Act to close off land to development, sometimes to the anger of local businesses and residents.

Millions of acres in and around the canyon are already protected by the federal government. The Grand Canyon itself was first unilaterally protected by then President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, before Congress made it a national park.

Much of the area under consideration for a monument — which is all federally owned — is already covered under a controversial 20-year moratorium on uranium mining that Obama issued in 2012.

But Grijalva notes that the moratorium is already being challenged in court and that stronger steps like designating the lands a monument are needed.

“It’s important because it’s a protection in perpetuity,” Grijalva said. “And if you protect the watershed, we have some guarantee that development would not go into those areas, and further deplete and create all the water stress that we’re having in the West.

“We also protect what Native Americans consider sacred, what Native Americans consider religious, cultural and historic resources within and around the Grand Canyon,” Grijalva added.

A January poll from the Grand Canyon Trust, which supports designating the monument, found 80 percent of Arizonans also in favor.

The proposal, though, faces tough opposition in Congress.

Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, has sponsored legislation to create the monument. But the committee, led by Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Overnight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe House GOP rolls out energy proposal to counter Democrats offshore drilling ban MORE (R-Utah), has not taken it up for consideration.

“There’s a long tradition of Congress passing bipartisan conservation legislation,” said Greg Zimmerman, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, which backs the proposal.

“Ideally, this would get done legislatively. But given the current Congress, given Congressman Bishop’s leadership of the House Natural Resources Committee, I think there’s a recognition that it’s unlikely to happen that way.”

With no path forward in a Republican Congress, Grijalva recently gathered with tribal leaders and other supporters to renew their call for Obama to protect the land.

Obama has designated around two dozen national monuments, which are often managed like national parks or other lands protected by Congress.

The GOP thinks Obama has used that power too much, especially where they see significant local opposition. The House has passed legislation to severely limit the president’s power to create monuments unilaterally without congressional approval.

The White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, which has reviewed recent monument designations, declined to comment on the proposed Grand Canyon monument, saying only that it has not made any announcements about the idea.

Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarOvernight Energy: House moves to block Trump drilling | House GOP rolls out proposal to counter offshore drilling ban | calls mount for NOAA probe House approves two bills to block Trump drilling House GOP rolls out energy proposal to counter Democrats offshore drilling ban MORE (R-Ariz.) opposes the monument, along with both of Arizona’s senators and the state's largest business association.

He tried at a recent House Oversight Committee hearing to goad Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management — which currently owns the land — into revealing whether the Obama administration was planning to designate the monument.

Kornze repeatedly refused to respond, referring Gosar to the White House.

“It’s been a consistent position of this administration to make sure that any use of the Antiquities Act is done through community conversation, that it’s responding to local interests,” Kornze said.

The most specific Kornze got to Gosar’s questions was to say that the White House often consults his bureau on numerous monument proposals on their lands.

Gosar said the monument proposal is irresponsible at best, and accused the administration of bowing to “extremists and environmentalists.”

“It’s not needed. This is nothing more than a power grab,” Gosar said.

“And when you start looking at it, taking away private property rights, state trust land, water rights, it has nothing to do with protecting the Grand Canyon. It’s to prohibit stuff from the Grand Canyon. So it’s already protected.”

Gosar said the federal government has a bad track record in caring for the land it already owns and protects, pointing to a huge maintenance backlog. Activities like grazing, which Gosar said would be prohibited under the protections, can help land thrive and prevent wildfires.

Both sides, though, show no signs of backing down and claim the support of local residents.

As for the poll showing 80 percent support, Gosar said the questions were skewed to get the favored result.

“We actually did a fair and unbiased poll that shows quite the opposite, that the Arizona population is not for this land grab, when they understand the true ramifications of it,” he said.

The poll that Gosar commissioned showed that 71.6 percent of Arizonans oppose the idea.