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Locals urge Obama to protect the Grand Canyon before it's too late 

Grand plan

click to enlarge Old Town Bike Shop owner John Crandall signed on. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Old Town Bike Shop owner John Crandall signed on.

Surrounded by bikes, helmets, water bottles and jerseys at his Old Town Bike Shop, owner John Crandall held up a letter signed by 50 other local business owners, academics and community leaders. It was addressed to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C.

The petition-signers are part of a broader movement urging President Barack Obama to designate the 1.7 million acres around the Grand Canyon as a national monument before his markedly less sympathetic successor takes office. Such a move would permanently protect the iconic area from future mining and logging activities — which pose a threat to drinking water for over 25 million people downstream, as well as Native American cultural sites and endangered ecosystems. A monument designation, which the president can invoke "with a stroke of the pen," can't be undone by future administrations.

Crandall told gathered reporters that what goes on elsewhere in the West may affect his business because his customers like to ride in Arizona. "I don't know the numbers, but I can say that the impacts of toxic uranium mining at the Canyon would hurt the outdoor recreation industry all the way over here in Colorado Springs," he said.

The Outdoor Industry Association estimates about 65 percent of Coloradans participate in outdoor recreation and spend over $13 billion at stores like Crandall's. Over 125,000 people are employed in Colorado's outdoor recreation industry, according to the Association, so preserving the places where people hike, bike, paddle, and ski may indeed have an economic payoff.

There's also the intrinsic value of health, the environment and culture. The desert surrounding the Grand Canyon, ancestral home to the Havasupai, Hopi and Zuni tribes, and the Hualapai Nation and the Navajo Nation, has already been desecrated by industry. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, four streams flowing through the canyon are undrinkable, due to past uranium mining, upstream radioactive spills and the byproducts of coal-burning power plants. Tribal and environmental attorneys are fighting in court to remediate defunct but still toxic "zombie" mines, while the Navajo Nation has promised to contest the state's recent permitting of uranium transport with only a tarp to protect against radioactive pollution.

In 2012, the Department of Interior (then led by Secretary Ken Salazar, who is now considering a run for governor of Colorado), banned mining in the area surrounding the Grand Canyon, where energy companies had staked thousands of claims.

At the time, higher uranium prices made mining the rich veins seem a lucrative prospect. But over the years, cheaper natural gas and aging reactors made investing in nuclear less of a sure bet. Since the election of Donald Trump, who has promised a "no holds barred" energy strategy, mining companies have renewed interest in their claims. Thus, they're resisting not only the monument designation, but also the regional mining moratorium.

The mining industry has support from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, a Koch brothers-backed Prosper Inc. and much of the state's congressional delegation. But the Grand Canyon Trust — a group advocating for preservation — says their polling shows over 80 percent of Americans favor the monument designation.

According to Katie Otterbeck, the Environment Colorado organizer who coordinated local letter-signing, Colorado Springs showed more support for the cause than any other city in the state.

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