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Biden Prevents Uranium Mining on Native Site

Biden to designate monument near Grand Canyon, preventing uranium mining. Uranium extraction had already been restricted in the area, which Native tribes consider sacred, but the moratorium was set to expire in 2032. Mr. Biden’s designation will make it permanent.

The Biden administration is set to designate almost a million acres in Arizona as a national monument. © Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Lisa Friedman

President Biden will designate nearly a million acres of land near the Grand Canyon as a new national monument on Tuesday to protect the area from uranium mining, administration officials confirmed on Monday.

Mr. Biden’s visit to Arizona is part of a nationwide blitz by the White House to translate key policy victories to voters — including a law he signed last year to inject $370 billion in tax incentives into wind, solar and other renewable energy — as the 2024 campaign ramps up. Senior cabinet officials are also touring the country this week, highlighting his domestic agenda.

During his first stop of a three-state tour, Mr. Biden will announce that he is creating a national monument — the fifth such designation of his presidency — in an area sacred to Native American tribes, administration officials told reporters on Monday.

“The mining is off limits for future development in that area,” Ali Zaidi, Mr. Biden’s national climate adviser, told reporters on Air Force One. “It’s focused on preserving the historical resources” in the area.

Native tribes and environmental groups have long lobbied for the government to permanently protect the area around the Grand Canyon from uranium mining, which they say would damage the Colorado River watershed as well as areas with great cultural meaning for Native Americans.

Under the proposed designation, all new uranium mining will be blocked. Uranium mining has already been restricted in the area in question since 2012, but that Obama-era moratorium was set to expire in 2032. Mr. Biden’s designation would make the conditions permanent.

Mr. Biden’s visit to Arizona was also an effort to energize crucial constituency groups in the state, even as much of the American public remains skeptical of his domestic agenda.

Mr. Biden has called the Inflation Reduction Act — major legislation he signed last year that aims to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions — “the largest investment ever in clean energy.” Yet 71 percent of Americans say they have heard “little” or “nothing at all” about the package one year later, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

And most Americans — 57 percent — disapprove of his handling of climate change, according to the poll. Surveys show young voters, who turned out in force during the 2020 election, are particularly concerned about global warming.

Some environmental groups were left infuriated when Mr. Biden greenlit a drilling project known as Willow on pristine federal land in Alaska and mandated the sale of offshore drilling leases as part of a deal to pass the climate bill, undermining a campaign promise to ban drilling on federal lands.

“We know that polls don’t tell the entire story,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said on Monday when asked about why voters seemingly do not know what it is in Mr. Biden’s bills. As the administration continues to enact the various legislative packages, she said, “we’ll see Americans start to feel what we’ve been able to do in Washington.”

Native Americans were also a crucial voting bloc in Arizona in 2020, when the state voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1996. They made up 6 percent of Arizona’s electorate in 2020, larger than Mr. Biden’s margin for victory, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

More than 80 percent of Native American voters in 2020 agreed with the statement that “the federal government should return lands stolen from Native American tribes,” according to a 2022 poll conducted by the African American Research Collaborative.

“It is likely a strategic decision to focus on the Grand Canyon,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has researched voting trends among Native Americans.

“Many Native Americans do not vote based on party, but on which candidates will do the most to advance the interests of Native American communities.”

The National Mining Association called the monument designation “unwarranted” and said it would force the United States to rely on imported uranium from countries like Russia. Representative Bruce Westerman, Republican of Arkansas and the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, blasted Mr. Biden for locking up domestic resources.

“This administration’s lack of reason knows no bounds, and their actions suggest that President Biden and his radical advisers won’t be satisfied until the entire federal estate is off limits and America is mired in dependency on our adversaries for our natural resources,” Mr. Westerman said in a statement.

The administration has argued that the proposed monument represents only 1.3 percent of the nation’s known uranium reserves.

“This is going to be a limit on future development in this space while being respectful of existing rights,” Mr. Zaidi said.

The area in question is called Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Baaj Nwaavjo, meaning “where tribes roam,” for the Havasupai people, and I’tah Kukveni, or “our footprints,” for the Hopi tribe.

Earlier this year Mr. Biden created a new national monument, Spirit Mountain, in Nevada, insulating from development a half-million acres that are revered by Native Americans. He also restored and expanded protections for Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, sites that are sacred to Native Americans and that had been opened to mining and drilling by the Trump administration.

In June, the Biden administration banned drilling for 20 years around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, one of the nation’s oldest and most culturally significant Native American sites.

© 2023 The New York Times Company


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