KINGMAN - Anyone who has visited the Grand Canyon easily recognizes that it's one of the world's great natural wonders and must be protected.
But what about the vast stretches of forest and desert surrounding Grand Canyon National Park that contain some of the world's richest uranium deposits and provide grazing for cattle?
Mohave County elected officials and congressional representatives of Arizona are pushing back against the Sierra Club and other environmentalists who want to take down 1.7 million acres of federal land for the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument.
They're opposed to forming the proposed national monument by presidential executive order, rather than by congressional action.
Creating a new and enormous national monument amounts to a "significant federal land grab," Mohave County Sheriff Jim McCabe said. It would add federal regulations to any use of the public land, including ranching, hunting, fishing and recreational activity.
"We're looking at this going from a wilderness area that allows all those things to a sanctuary that stops all those things," McCabe told the Daily Miner. "You're allowed to walk on it and that's it."
McCabe wants to know who's going to be responsible for fire protection, and what happens to Mohave County's water rights currently in place.
"It is just this sort of federal overreach that has led to proposals for states to assume control of huge areas of public land in the American West," McCabe said. "Creation of vast new national monuments not by congressional debate and action, but by presidential executive order, even while lawful, would contribute further to distrust of the federal action."
A national monument is a permanent designation for public land that can be established either by Congress or directly by the president. The Antiquities Act, signed into law in 1906, gives the president the authority to protect valuable public lands for conservation purposes by designating them as national monuments.
The proposed Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument includes the North Kaibab and Tusayan districts of the Kaibab National Forest, as well as public lands in the Arizona Strip, all managed by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM.
"The monument designation will include only public lands, so there is no land grab," said Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "Private and state trust lands will not be part of the proposed monument."
Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both R-Ariz., have written letters to President Barack Obama opposing the monument designation. They say it would restrict land managers and private property owners from forest thinning, which could increase fire danger. It would also ban hunting, making wildlife management difficult.
Bahr countered that previous monument declarations by the president included language that makes it clear that the state retains its authority to manage wildlife. They do not limit hunting and fishing, she said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, along with McCain and Flake, introduced a bill in May to prevent the president from changing federal water-rights designation of lands declared to be national monuments.
Proponents of the watershed say it remains at risk from threats such as toxic uranium mining and the logging of old-growth forest.
Bahr of the Sierra Club said the watershed covers some "spectacular" public lands, including portions of the Kaibab National Forest, House Rock Valley and the Kaibab-Paunsagunt Wildlife Corridor, a key wildlife habitat the Kaibab squirrel, the northern goshawk, the Kaibab-Paunsagunt mule deer herd, mountain lion, and the endangered California condor.
The lands are distinguished by rugged cliffs, pine forests, deep canyons and grasslands, and they provide clean drinking water for millions of people downstream who depend on the Colorado River.
Geologists warn that uranium mining could deplete and contaminate aquifers that discharge into the Grand Canyon, and that cleaning them up would be next to impossible.
"Uranium is radioactive and toxic," Bahr said. "Uranium mining has a big impact, contaminating land and waters, including on the Navajo Nation and in Grand Canyon National Park itself."
The Orphan Mine, on the South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park, has contaminated Horn Creek and still leaches radioactive waste into the creek, she said. The National Park Service has spent more than $15 million of American taxpayers' dollars to pay for the cleanup, she noted. There are hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on Navajo lands that still need to be cleaned up.
Protecting the land from mining is a "non-issue" as the BLM has placed a 20-year moratorium on new claims, and there's very little logging taking place in the area, said Tom Britt, retired from Arizona Game and Fish in Flagstaff.
"It's about control over restoration and protection of the forest," Britt said. "What we need to do is look to see if it's a problem. No. The area is already adequately administered by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM. So all we're doing is ratcheting up administrative overhead in that area, which is not needed. What is the intent? To restrict activities?"
People can say hunting is not going to be restricted, but once the land is designated a national monument, there will be a management plan and "the devil will be in the details," Britt said.
A contingent of 36 Democratic state senators and representatives sent a letter to President Obama in March urging him to designate the Grand Canyon watershed as a national monument.
"Arizona has a rich history of presidents taking action to protect its natural wonders, including early on the protection of Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest by President Theodore Roosevelt," the letter stated. "We ask that you now look to Grand Canyon's watershed on the lands north and south of Grand Canyon National Park for a new national monument."
National monument designation does not affect private or state lands or private property rights. It provides for continued existing activities, including public access, rights-of-way, sightseeing, mountain biking, hiking, wildlife viewing, birding, hunting, fishing, and many other activities, including traditional tribal access.
As legislators pointed out in their letter, all of these cultural, economic and natural assets are at risk from "harmful" uranium mining.
Among other groups supporting the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument are the Arizona Wilderness Coalition; Grand Canyon Wildlands Council; Grand Canyon River Guides; Environment Arizona; and Northern Arizona Audubon Society.
"Public lands belong to all of us, and as a consequence of that shared ownership and shared responsibility, we can't allow a handful of special interest groups with an agenda cloaked in economic recovery and jobs to dominate the conversation as to what happens to these special places," said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.
The Grand Canyon attracts about 4.5 million visitors a year, and generates nearly $800 million for the state and local economies.
The U.S. Department of Interior's 2012 decision to ban more than 1 million acres of public lands from future uranium mining is detrimental to the growth of the local economy, Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson said. The decision was overturned in April in U.S. District Court.
Uranium mining would bring $29.4 billion to the local economy over more than 40 years, employing 1,078 workers with a $40 million annual payroll, according to a 2009 report from Tetra Tech of Golden, Colo. Local governments would receive $9.5 million in claims payments and fees.
"It's shutting down the use of our natural resources," Johnson said. "Uranium mining could kick off the economy for years to come, plus we need it for the security of the nation. They always bring up how it's ruining the Grand Canyon. Nothing is close to the Grand Canyon."
The uranium veins are not that large, more like "crop circles" in a small, localized area of the desert, Johnson noted. The footprint of disturbed land is small, and after reclamation efforts, you can't tell where it's been, he said.
Anti-mining forces have pushed the Department of Interior to change the rules on mining claims so that exploration would not be allowed unless a company could prove before the fact that economically-viable mineral resources exist.
"It depends on the price of uranium and the price to bring it out," Johnson said.
Existing mining claims would not be affected by the monument designation. However, lands currently under the BLM's 20-year moratorium would be permanently protected from mining.
"Our economy is not going to recover with traditional manufacturing jobs," Johnson said. "What we need to do is go back to our roots that led to Arizona being developed, and that is mining."