Plan to protect 1.7 million acres at Grand Canyon claims new support

The Grand Canyon, at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. A bill by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, would protect an additional 1.7 million acres around the canyon by designating them as part of new national monument. Sophia Kunthara/Cronkite News

The Grand Canyon, at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. A bill by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, would protect an additional 1.7 million acres around the canyon by designating them as part of new national monument. Sophia Kunthara/Cronkite News

WASHINGTON - Backers of a bill that would create a new national monument on 1.7 million acres of federal land around the Grand Canyon touted a new survey Feb. 18 that they said shows broad support for the plan.

The telephone survey of likely voters across the state found 80 percent of respondents said they somewhat supported or strongly supported establishing the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, while just 14 percent opposed and 6 percent had no opinion.

"The political firestorm will be shrill, but it's on strong legal ground," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, who sponsored the bill to create the monument. "The poll helps us to ... build support across Arizona and the rest of the nation."

Critics of the plan were not impressed, noting that the release of the poll comes a week after President Barack Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to make national monuments out of about 1.8 million acres of federal land in California. That nearly doubled the amount of public land he's protected during his presidency.

"I think with the current attitude in the country, I can't believe that that's what Western voters want," said Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, in response to the poll results. "It's another example of the federal government taking land away."

Johnson said that uranium mining in his county could be worth $29 million, but that the Department of the Interior set a 20-year moratorium on new mines in 2012. He cited it as another example of federal intrusion that can lead to problems at the local level.

"No one wants to see the Grand Canyon go unprotected," Johnson said. "We're just getting far away from the idea of protection. That land could be used to create more jobs."

But Grijalva said his bill was introduced, in part, to protect the land from uranium mining, as well as to help preserve sacred tribal lands. He was joined by leaders from the Hopi and Havasupai tribes in a conference call to release the poll.

The poll by FM3 - Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates - was based on phone interviews with 703 Arizonans from Jan. 14-17, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, whose district includes the Grand Canyon, said in an emailed statement that the monument proposal is "an important issue to our entire state, especially to our tribal communities and the people of northern Arizona. ... I strongly encourage folks throughout Arizona to study this proposal and voice their opinions."

Grijalva said that since introducing the bill in November he has received a lot of political pushback, particularly concerning recreational activities on the land. But he said the bill includes guaranteed protections for hunting and fishing in the targeted monument area.

To those who have complained about Obama's use of executive authority to create monuments, Grijalva notes that his proposal is a bill that will be considered by lawmakers - although he thinks the president could use his authority if he had to for this monument.

"The Antiquities Act is federal law and we're not there yet," Grijalva said. "Although I think the president would be on comfortable historic and legal ground to use his executive power."

The bill would give the departments of Interior and Agriculture control of the 1.7 million acres surrounding the canyon so the agencies can "conserve, protect and enhance its natural resources and values." It has been referred to committee but has yet to receive a hearing.

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