It's remarkable how often crucial moments in America's quest to preserve its wild legacy are embodied on the rim of the Grand Canyon. This is the single place where that battle is joined most often.
Here, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Grand Canyon National Monument by saying: "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." And in response, his slash-and-burn opponents in the U.S. Congress proposed legislation to strip the president of the power to withdraw federal lands from commercial destruction, saying, in effect, "Posterity? What has posterity ever done for us?"
Here, in the late 1960s, Dave Brower and the leadership of the Sierra Club launched a campaign to prevent the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon -- the battle that caused the Club to lose its charitable tax exemption (and that kickstarted the modern, fighting environmental tradition it exemplifies today).
Here, in 1996, President Clinton announced the creation of the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, beginning his land legacy, which set aside 6 million acres of new parks and monuments. And once again, the enemies of America's wild legacy went ballistic. One wise-use group went so far as to claim: "...this seemingly innocuous action represents the greatest single look at the tremendous threat to our individual liberties, our right to freedom of speech, of religion, of Association, and of the right to own Private Property, which the coming New World Order represents."
And here, last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declared his commitment to protect a million acres surrounding this magnificent national park from being desecrated by new uranium mining claims. In July of 2009, Salazar asked the Bureau of Land Management to review the question of whether these claims should be permitted or whether the land should instead be protected. Salazar announced that, based on that study, he is extending the temporary withdrawal for another six months on the full one million acres and that permanent protection will be the preferred alternative in the environmental review that will now commence.
"This is a great day for the Grand Canyon, its wildlife and everyone in the Southwest who relies on the Colorado River for drinking water," said Sandy Bahr, the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter Director.
In his own remarks, Salazar echoed Teddy Roosevelt and sent a powerful message to those in Congress who, just as in 1908, will surely try to undo this act of leadership: "Our decisions -- our actions -- can alter billions of years of history in all its wonder and glory. Let us be cautious. Let us be patient. Let us be humble. "
But humility does not seem to be the Tea Party's style.
Arizona governor Jan Brewer immediately blasted the action.
And a mining front group with the Orwellian name "American Clean Energy Resources Trust" came out swinging: "The whole thing is built on a house of cards," said Bob Weidner of the Trust. "While the secretary sounds reasonable saying, 'We should wait,' the facts are already out based on experience that there is no link between uranium mining and pollution to the Colorado River."
Republicans in Congress repeated the pattern of their predecessors. "This shameful effort by the Obama administration is a step in precisely the wrong direction for the American economy, making the U.S. even more dependent on foreign powers and potentially creating a serious national security threat going forward," said Rep. Trent Franks. "Putting the desires of a handful of rabid environmentalists above America's long-term energy independence and national security." Franks has a bill pending that, once again, would strip the president of the power to protect these public lands. Somehow, the fact that the state of Arizona, which protested the creation of Grand Canyon National Park in the first place, now features it on its license plates still hasn't sunk in after 103 years.
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