« Return to this article

Know the West

Don’t just save the Grand Canyon. Save the wider region, too.


We think we’ve saved the Grand Canyon. We established a national park that is supposed to remain “forever unimpaired,” as the Park Service’s enabling legislation put it. But the Grand Canyon is so deeply enmeshed in a spider web of connections to its watershed that a lot of work needs to be done to keep it vital and wild.

The stone ramparts above the abyss look timeless, but they tumble toward the sea under the inescapable power of gravity and erosion. Ponderosa pine forests seem to go on forever across northern Arizona, but their existence depends on the interplay of changing climate, water, insects and fire.

Developers chip away doggedly at the edges of the park, planning massive commercial development at the gateway community of Tusayan and a gondola that will reach deep into the canyon on Navajo land at the remote confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. We continue to log rare old-growth ponderosa pine forest on the Kaibab Plateau for no good reason.

The Grand Canyon filled with fog.
Erin Whittaker/National Park Service

All of these threats signal that it’s time to permanently protect the Greater Grand Canyon watershed. With boundaries embracing a total of 1.7 million acres of public lands on the North and South rims, a Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument would block new uranium mines that poison streams and contaminate the springs that are essential to wildlife and to Native American religious observance. The Kaibab Plateau, centerpiece of this monument proposal, remains an unprotected island surrounded by preserved parkland and Native American nations.

Theodore Roosevelt famously said on his first visit to the canyon in 1903, “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” The president was right about our ability to destroy. Roosevelt also understood greed. In his 1903 speech on the canyon’s rim, he admonished us, saying that we cannot be “pardoned if we simply treat any part of our country as something to be skinned for two or three years. … Handle it so that your children's children will get the benefit of it.”

The key is how best to “handle” the Greater Grand Canyon — the entire landscape that gives this place such integrity. We know we should do no harm. We know we need a clear stage for scientists to save what biodiversity they can, to encourage resilience in the face of climate change, and to map wildlife migration corridors between refuges so we know what lands need protection.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, has one answer to the question of how we can ensure the Grand Canyon’s future. In October 2015, he introduced the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument bill. It has the support of 11 tribes, led by the Havasupai, Hualapai, Navajo and Hopi, Native peoples who consider the Grand Canyon a sacred place and their home. The bill honors the Native peoples’ “longstanding historical, cultural and religious connection to the Greater Grand Canyon” and acknowledges the continuity of Native stewardship,  “resulting in an accumulated body of traditional ecological knowledge.” Such deference to contemporary Native American wisdom in legislative language is unheard of.

If our gridlocked Congress refuses to act on Grijalva’s bill, President Obama can choose to do so, thanks to the powers of the Antiquities Act. The president’s administration acknowledged imminent dangers to the Canyon in 2012, when Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar ordered a 20-year ban on thousands of new uranium claims on the public lands surrounding Grand Canyon. Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez calls uranium mines “a devastation to our people.” The monument would make Salazar’s moratorium permanent. 

The “Grand Canyon” is an abyss, a river, a rim and an infinitely folded relief map of side canyons. It is time and vastness, luminosity and illumination. Its extravagant complexity reaches far back from the rims and deep into America, defining a Greater Grand Canyon that includes the heritage of 12,000 years of humans living in this storied landscape.

In this centennial year of the National Park Service, Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell has pledged to make national parks “decisively more inclusive places” that feel relevant to Native people. She has asked us to “think big.”

President Obama has a chance to act on these goals and honor the integrity of this icon of the irreplaceable. In proclaiming a Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument, Barack Obama would stand with Theodore Roosevelt in fighting greed, acting on behalf of the future, celebrating diversity and democracy, and protecting the exhilaration and refuge bestowed on all Americans by this wild place.

Stephen Trimble is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High County News. He teaches writing at the University of Utah Honors College and is the author of Lasting Light: 125 years of Grand Canyon Photography.