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July 05, 2013

Last Stop -- The Grand Canyon

As my family and I finished up our two-week road trip through the American West, our last big stop was one that's made by five million people every year. Forget about Chartres, Giza, and the Great Wall -- the Grand Canyon takes your breath away like no other wonder of the world. It did when I was 13, and it still does. I couldn't wait to show it to my own kids.

We have every right to be proud, as Americans, that we've permanently protected iconic landscapes like Grand Canyon National Park. And I'm proud that the Sierra Club and its volunteers have played an important role over the last century in making it happen. The Club's new Our Wild America campaign will continue that tradition.

That's good, because as we learned during our trip, the job of protection is far from finished. Not only are some unique and irreplaceable landscapes still vulnerable, but many of the places that we have protected are under fresh assault from drilling and mining. During our first night camping in a Utah state park near Canyonlands National Park, from our tent we could actually see natural gas flaring from nearby oil wells.

Harder to see -- but just as disturbing -- was what's happening at the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park was first protected by President Theodore Roosevelt more than 100 years ago -- initially as a national monument. But most of the public wilderness lands immediately surrounding the park are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Last year, President Obama imposed a 20-year moratorium (the longest allowable by law) on developing new uranium mines in that surrounding area. That made sense because uranium mines could easily contaminate the watershed that includes the national park.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service has decided to allow Energy Fuels Resources, Inc. to reopen an old uranium mine located in the Kaibab National Forest, just south of the park. That should be a serious concern for anyone who cares about the Grand Canyon, but it's especially worrisome to the local Havasupai people. We met with tribal elders who shared both their fears about radioactive contamination and that the mine would disturb lands that are sacred to their people.

Shouldn't the Grand Canyon be considered sacred by all Americans? Do we want to risk contaminating it for what amounts to forever -- just so mining companies can profit from high uranium prices? Not to mention that, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, Grand Canyon tourism generates $687 million in annual revenue.

There's a solution, and it's the same one used by Teddy Roosevelt. A proposed new Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument would strengthen protections for the entire area -- just as the current new-mining moratorium has, but without an expiration date. By designating such a monument, President Obama could permanently protect the unique wilderness area near the Grand Canyon from not only uranium mining but also overgrazing, logging, drilling, and other destructive practices. The lands would remain accessible for outdoor recreation -- and for tourists like my family and the other millions of people who come to be astounded every year.

Let President Obama know -- we all care about the Grand Canyon and the beautiful lands that surround it. Let's protect them for future generations with a Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument.

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