Op-Ed: Gamma Rays and the Grand Canyon

U.S. Forest Service authorizes a uranium mine just six miles from the canyon.

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise.


Uranium mining has left a poisonous legacy in the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau—Indian country where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado come together. Last year Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, mindful of that legacy, imposed a 20-year ban on any new uranium extraction or other hardrock mining on more than one million acres around the Grand Canyon.

The mining industry counterattacked with a sweeping attempt to reverse the ban. This March, the miners failed in court, when a federal judge denied their motion to overturn the Salazar decision on constitutional grounds. A tactical, piecemeal circumvention of the ban has had better luck in the bureaucracy of the U.S. Forest Service. The USFS, despite the anti-mining intent of their boss President Obama, authorized a Canadian company to dig uranium six miles from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai Tribe, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Grand Canyon Trust have sued to stop the mine.

Since childhood I have followed the history of the effort not to mar the Grand Canyon. My father, David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, made his reputation by leading successful campaigns in the '50s and '60s against dams in Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon. When these victories occasionally went to the heads of his troops, he warned against premature celebration.

"They only have to win once," he said of his opposition, the extractive industries. "We have to win every time. You can defeat the dam, but the dam site is always there." If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, then the price of our iconic landscapes is the same.

Bad Old Ways

The USFS decision is disheartening and baffling. This agency had an awful record for ruinous forest practices through most of the 20th century, but lately it has shifted emphasis from timber harvest to ecosystems management, considerably brightening its reputation. Why would it choose to slip back into its bad old ways? And how could it ignore the catastrophe of the last wave of uranium mining? Thousands of played-out claims dot the Southwest, derelict and radioactive.

The Navajo, who banned uranium mining from their lands in 2005, have suffered the most.

"Today, the legacy of uranium mining continues to devastate both the people and the land," Navajo President Joe Shirley, Jr., testified in 2008. "The workers, their families, and their neighbors suffer increased incidences of cancers and other medical disorders caused by their exposure to uranium. Fathers and sons who went to work in the mines and the processing facilities brought uranium dust into their homes, infecting their families. The mines, many simply abandoned, have left open scars in the ground leaking radioactive waste. It would be unforgivable to allow this cycle to continue for another generation."

Why would the Forest Service want to resume that unforgivable cycle?

"I think," ventured Roger Clark, "that it's political pressure from Republican senators and others who are recipients of big donations from the mining industry." But Clark, the Grand Canyon Program Director of the Grand Canyon Trust, went on to admit to some bafflement about the Forest Service thinking. "Particularly," he said, "when the environmental impact statement for Salazar's withdrawal found that there is risk to groundwater and wildlife and impacts to tourism that really weren't documented in the 1980s. Groundwater studies show that there can be contamination from the mine flowing into the Redwall Aquifer that feeds all the springs in the canyon and is the sole source of water for the Havasupai Tribe."

Worrisome Precedent

The Havasupai and their environmentalist allies worry that allowing Canyon Mine might set a precedent. There are more than 3,000 similar claims in the area of Salazar's set-aside. Canyon Mine is itself hardly more than a claim. On being granted mining rights in 1986, Energy Fuel Resources, the owner, built a head-frame and hoist and partially sunk a shaft, but never brought up any uranium. The company argues now that its rights should be grandfathered in under the Salazar ban. The USFS concurs.

Alicyn Gitlin of the Sierra Club objects. "Kaibab National Forest approved the Canyon Mine to begin operations based on a 1986 plan of operations and a 1986 environmental impact statement [EIS]," she says. For Gitlin, the Forest Service claim that no significant new information has surfaced in the 27 years since is laughable. She contends that there is plenty of new information—hydrological, ecological, cultural—which requires the agency, under the National Environmental Policy Act, to prepare a new EIS, or at least a supplement to the old one.

Sacred to All

"Red Butte is our aboriginal homeland and one of our sacred places," Matthew Putesoy, vice chairman of the Havasupai Tribe, has said of the mine site. "We call that place Wii'i Gdwiisa and that's a place of emergence for our people. Just that the mineshaft is there, it's already a desecration."

Putesoy complains that in meetings with the Forest Service, the Havasupai pointed out that Red Butte is a nationally registered traditional cultural property, but that this seemed to make no impression. Kaibab National Forest notes on its website that it completed an EIS to evaluate the 1986 plan, "including significant comment and input from federally recognized tribes." This is not quite the whole story. There was indeed comment and input from the tribes; the USFS simply chose to ignore it.

Since their emergence from the underworld, the Havasupai, the "Blue Water People," have inhabited the Grand Canyon area for at least eight centuries. Red Butte, their Wii'i Gdwiisa, "Clenched Fist Mountain," is also a sacred waypoint for the Zuni Tribe on pilgrimages to their own place of emergence in Grand Canyon, Chimik'yana'kya dey'a, or Ribbon Falls on Bright Angel Creek. The proto-humans of Zuni myth, the "Cooked People," lived crowded in dark caverns four levels beneath the Earth's surface, but evolved upward through successive subterranean worlds to emerge finally, blinking like owls, in the luminous falls of Bright Angel Creek.

Red Butte is sacred to the Hopi and Navajo, as well. In 2009, when the Havasupai organized a protest at the foot of the mountain, they were joined by the Hualapai, Hopi, Kaibab Paiute, Paiute, Navajo, and Apache-old enemies united by uranium.

Nowadays Grand Canyon country is sacred not just to the aborigines, of course, but to everyone. The next time you find yourself on an overlook, listen to the languages around you. German will predominate, most likely. American English, British English, French, and Japanese will vie for second. It is as if this great chasm, cutting down through a mile of space and two billion years of time, has become a place of emergence for all of us.

Teddy's Plea

Four score and 30 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt, standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, made a plea to the nation. "Leave it as it is," he said. "You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

Our 26th president, the old Bull Moose and Rough Rider, would go on to be the driving force in the creation of Grand Canyon National Park. He thanked the Santa Fé Railroad for its wisdom in not building its hotel on the brink of the canyon. He expressed hope that no building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, would spoil the grandeur. He urged that we keep an unmarred canyon here for our children, and our children's children, and all who come after.

"We have gotten past the stage, my fellow citizens," he said, "when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of our country as something to be skinned for two or three years for the use of the present generation."

Sorry, Teddy. We have not gotten past that stage.

Ken Brower writes about the environment and the natural world. He is a longtime contributor to National Geographic magazine and has written three books for the National Geographic Society, among them "Realms of the Sea." He lives in Berkeley, California.