Earlier this year, Arizona lawmakers sued the Biden administration over the newly created Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument — arguing that the establishment of national monuments should be state matters and calling the move a “land grab.” Now, the Hopi, Havasupai, and Navajo Nation, whose ancestral lands overlap with the national monument, have intervened in the case and joined with the federal government to protect the area.

“Even if the Tribal Nations and federal government share similar goals and legal positions in this litigation, the United States cannot adequately represent the Tribal Nations’ sovereign interest,” the tribes’ intervention stated. 

The nearly 1 million acre national monument protects areas tribes called home before being forcibly removed by the federal government, as well as places where tribal citizens hunt, pray, and gather foods and medicines. The area is also important for wildlife migration routes and potential burial sites. 

If successful, Arizona’s lawsuit would open Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni to more economic development, and specifically, livestock grazing and uranium mining. Currently, there is only one uranium mine in operation within the boundaries of the national monument. The lawsuit argues that limiting mining of uranium around the Grand Canyon will make the U.S. more dependent on acquiring it from foreign countries for energy purposes.

Arizona’s lawsuit is focused specifically on the Antiquities Act. Passed in 1906 to protect areas of scientific and historical significance, President Biden used the act to create Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni after decades of Indigenous advocacy focused on protecting the Grand Canyon from uranium mining. According to Arizona, the national monument ties up too much land, impacting revenue generation that could affect funding for schools as well as the economies of small towns in the area who have also joined in the suit against the federal government.

“Under the constitution, Congress is the policy making branch of government that decides how federal land is used,” Kim Quintero, a spokesperson for the Arizona Legislature. “Not presidential edicts.” 

“When you think about Baaj Nwaanjo I’tah Kukveni and the creation of this monument, it’s an immensely important place for the tribal nations,” said Mathew Cambell, a member of the Native Village of Gambell in Alaska, and legal counsel for the Havasupai Tribe and the Hopi Tribe. “The tribes fought very hard for the establishment of the monument and are here to defend it.”

Last year, a federal judge in Utah dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by states challenging the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante—two national monuments recently-created through the Antiquities Act with strong tribal ties. In that case, District Judge David Nuffer held that the Antiquities Act gives the president authority to create monuments and that the courts have no power to dispute it. That case is now in appeal. 

But Kim Quintero of the Arizona Legislature says their case is different. She cites a 2021 lawsuit where a group of commercial fishermen challenged President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act that protected around five-thousand miles of ocean floor off the coast of New England, and put a ban on fishing. 

While the Supreme Court declined to review the case, Chief Justice John Roberts indicated interest in looking at the size of monuments writing that “the scope of the objects that can be designed under the Act, and how it measures the area necessary for their proper care and management, may warrant consideration– especially given the myriad restrictions on public use this purely discretionary designation can serve to justify.”

Quintero says the Arizona Legislature is banking on the Supreme Court taking the case. If successful, she said there will be other avenues for tribes to utilize in protecting the area.

“Tribal members, like other members of the public, can petition Congress to pass laws to protect areas of federal land they believe should be protected,” said Quintero.

Nine conservation organizations including the Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club have signed on to protect Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni. “The conservation groups are very much following the lead of the tribes,” said Michal Toll, staff attorney for the Grand Canyon Trust. “These are their ancestral homelands.”

Mathew Cambell said it will likely take months before the intervention is ruled on by the court and years before the lawsuit is settled. 

—Taylar Dawn Stagner, Grist


This article originally appeared in Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future. Sign up for its newsletter here.

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