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Conservation Groups Defend Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument, Antiquities Act 

April 25, 2024
Chris Krupp, WildEarth Guardians, ckrupp@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release
Public Lands  
#ForceForNature, #PressStatement, #ProtectWhatYouLove
PHOENIX, Ariz. – Conservation groups filed a motion to intervene yesterday in defense of President Biden’s designation of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in Arizona. The Arizona legislature and others filed lawsuits in February attempting to overturn the monument designation and attacking the Antiquities Act as unlawful. The monument lies within the homelands of and holds great cultural significance to numerous Tribes, who led the effort to protect the monument.  

The Havasupai Tribe, the Hopi Tribe, and the Navajo Nation also moved to intervene on Wednesday. 

“This monument is a testament to the decades of tireless advocacy by numerous Tribes to secure federal protections for their ancestral lands and waters around the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, the Arizona legislature and other parties have sued to eviscerate the monument and to gut the Antiquities Act,” said Michael Toll, staff attorney for the Grand Canyon Trust. “The legislature relies on the same basic arguments that have been rejected by every court to consider them, and we’ll work for that same outcome in this case.”

“The leadership of the state legislature is defying the interests of Arizonans, who widely support the use of the Antiquities Act to protect the irreplaceable Native cultural sites and unique ecosystems of the greater Grand Canyon,” said Chris Krupp, public lands attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “The leaders of the Arizona House and Senate would rather carry water for the mining and grazing industries that fund their political campaigns than listen to the people of Arizona.” 

President Biden lawfully designated Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in August 2023, answering longtime calls from Tribal leaders to permanently protect over 900,000 acres adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park. The monument safeguards sacred Indigenous cultural sites as well as remarkable archaeological and ecological features from uranium mining and other threats. 

Tribes including the Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab Paiute Tribe, Las Vegas Band of Paiute Tribe, Moapa Band of Paiutes, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Shivwits Band of Paiutes, Navajo Nation, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Pueblo of Zuni and the Colorado River Indian Tribes urged President Biden to designate a national monument to honor their deep cultural ties to the Grand Canyon.

Uranium mining around the Grand Canyon threatens to further deplete and permanently pollute the aquifers that feed the Grand Canyon’s springs, which provide water for both the Havasupai Tribe and a rich diversity of plants and animals. Previous mining in the Grand Canyon region has contaminated land and water and radiation has sickened people living nearby, including on the Navajo Nation, where hundreds of abandoned uranium mines still await cleanup

“Like the Grand Canyon itself, this breathtaking monument safeguards globally significant cultural values and biodiversity, and we’re determined to defend it,” said Taylor McKinnon, Southwest director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It enshrines decades of Tribal and community advocacy, and we’re confident that these lawsuits will be shown to be on the wrong side of both the law and history.” 

“The critical significance of this lawfully designated monument to the well-being and long-term resilience of Tribal communities, Grand Canyon’s waters and wildlife, the Colorado River, our Grand Canyon state, the nation, and the world cannot be overstated,” said Kelly Burke, executive director for Wild Arizona. “Apparently all this is lost on the Arizona legislature’s leadership, and is why we are committed to stand with Tribal nations in defense of this treasured living landscape against such self-serving attacks.” 

The region is also home to many sensitive and endangered species, including the humpback chub, California condor, desert bighorn sheep, Mexican spotted owl and Western yellow-billed cuckoo, as well as endemic plant and animal species like the Kaibab monkey grasshopper, the House Rock Valley chisel-toothed kangaroo rat, Grand Canyon ringlet butterfly and Tusayan rabbitbrush. Paleontological resources are also found throughout the area, with fossils documented in written scientific literature for nearly 150 years. 

“The state and special interest lawsuits against the monument’s designation show a blatant disregard for the cultural values and widespread importance of protecting this amazing place,” said Cyndi Tuell, Western Watersheds Project’s Arizona and New Mexico director. “Private commercial interests cannot outweigh the national significance of these lands, and in fact, the Biden Administration should have done more to ensure that land uses like livestock grazing do not continue to damage natural and cultural resources.”

The attack, led by the Arizona legislature, follows a similar lawsuit involving the Antiquities Act in Utah, in which Utah and others challenged President Biden’s restoration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Both the Utah and Arizona lawsuits target monuments that were set aside to protect and honor Indigenous cultural sites, along with important archaeological and ecological features, and were filed despite strong Tribal support for the designations. The federal court in Utah dismissed the case last year, and it is now on appeal. 

“For more than a century, the Antiquities Act has preserved some of the most treasured and iconic landscapes in the country, including the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument,” said Sandy Bahr, director for Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “This lawsuit from Arizona legislators is an attack on a monument promoted by and supported by at least 14 Tribal nations and is just the latest in a series of attacks by big industry and its enablers to undercut the Antiquities Act and sell off public lands to the highest bidder. Presidents from both sides of the aisle have used the act to protect our historical and cultural heritage, and we will keep working to defend these landscapes for future generations.”

In 1920, the Supreme Court upheld President Teddy Roosevelt’s use of the Antiquities Act to protect 800,000 acres in Arizona when he declared the Grand Canyon a national monument. Presidents since have on many occasions designated monuments of a million acres or more. Courts have consistently found that culturally and scientifically rich landscapes, even large ones, are eligible for protection under the Act. In their motion to intervene, the conservation groups signaled their opposition to Utah’s erroneous claim that a president can designate only small monuments centered on specific sites.

“These lawsuits by the Arizona legislature and others seeking to overturn President Biden’s declaration of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument represent yet another misguided attack on the Antiquities Act of 1906,” said Sara Husby, executive director for Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni was lawfully created to honor Indigenous cultural sites—along with important archaeological and ecological features—and protect them from uranium mining and other threats. Great Old Broads for Wilderness is proud to work in support of the Tribal and Indigenous community in defense of both Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni and the Antiquities Act as a whole.” 

“This case is yet another attack on the Antiquities Act at the behest of extractive industries and anti-federal government groups. It’s disappointing that state officials keep trying to prevent the federal government from managing federal lands in a way that protects sacred Indigenous sites, one-of-a-kind ecosystems, and other cherished public resources,” said Tom Delehanty, senior associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office. “The Supreme Court has recognized for a hundred years that the Antiquities Act gives the president broad authority to protect important sites and landscapes. We’ll continue to fight these meritless lawsuits to ensure our most special places are protected for future generations.” 

“Baaj Nwaavjo is a textbook example of what Congress intended to achieve through the Antiquities Act. Despite decades of extraction and unchecked mining pollution, there are over 3,000 known cultural and historical sites within the protected lands. The monument’s unique hydrological features also give scientists insights into the formation of the Grand Canyon,” said Jackie Iwata, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Just as the Supreme Court affirmed the Grand Canyon’s designation as a monument a century ago, there is no question that the president can and should protect these resources from further spoliation today.”

A decade in the making and with resounding Tribal and public support, this monument protects not just a landscape, but a legacy – a tapestry of red rock canyons, irreplaceable waterways, and cultural and historic sites sacred to many Tribal Nations,” said Sanober Mirza, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “The Antiquities Act has been a bedrock conservation law for over a century, protecting cultural and historic treasures and iconic landmarks like Grand Canyon National Park. With the courts repeatedly affirming its authority, we are proud to defend Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument.”

“Without the Antiquities Act, our public lands would look starkly different, especially here in Arizona, where the landscape is layered with cultural, natural, and historic resources,” said Mike Quigley, Arizona state director with The Wilderness Society. “Protecting and preserving the ancestral lands of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument is widely supported: a recent poll showed 86% of Arizonans support presidents continuing to use their ability to protect existing public lands as national monuments.”

Earthjustice is representing the Center for Biological Diversity, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and Wild Arizona in the intervention. The Grand Canyon Trust and NRDC are co-counseling with Earthjustice and representing themselves. 

Media requests on the Tribes’ efforts can be directed to media@narf.org.

Photos are available here.  

Looking north over the NW unit
President Biden established the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni -Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in northern Arizona, an area considered sacred by many Tribal Nations in the Southwest and renowned for its natural, cultural, economic, scientific and historic resources and broad recreation opportunities. (U.S. Department of the Interior)


Other Contact
Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice, pwheeler@earthjustice.org  , Caitlyn Burford, National Parks Conservation Association, cburford@npca.org , Taylor McKinnon, Center for Biological Diversity, tmckinnon@biologicaldiversity.org , Kelly Burke, Wild Arizona, kelly@wildarizona.org , Cyndi Tuell, Western Watersheds Project, cyndi@westernwatersheds.org , Sandy Bahr, Sierra Club, sandy.bahr@sierraclub.org , Michael Toll, Grand Canyon Trust, mtoll@grandcanyontrust.org