Is protected land really protected?

Conservation is complicated

Grand Canyon.
(Image credit: Nico De Pasquale Photography / Getty Images)

Land near the Grand Canyon contains a uranium mine that could prove valuable in the United States' efforts to push toward nuclear power. However, whether or not to welcome mining in the region has been an ongoing debate as environmentalists and tribes oppose the measure. In contrast, others see it as valuable to the country's energy future. The region around the canyon is under a 20-year protection soon to expire. This raises questions of how much the U.S. truly conserves protected land and whether there are instances in which protections get lifted.

What's happening at the Grand Canyon?

The Grand Canyon, one of the most recognizable natural landmarks in the U.S., has a bountiful uranium mine right near it. What to do with this mine has been the subject of heated discussion — On one hand, the extraction of said uranium could help push forward the country's nuclear energy efforts. Many experts and politicians agree that nuclear power will be crucial to reaching net-zero emissions. "Bottom line, for the most part, nuclear is not a fuel type that's getting a lot of attention from U.S. power generators; although it probably should be," Joe Govreau of research group Industrial Info told Business Wire.

On the other hand, environmentalists and tribal groups want to designate the region as a national monument, protecting it from any development. The region is considered sacred by a number of tribes. "This designation is of the highest priority to the Hopi people," said Timothy Nuvangyaoma, chairman of the Hopi tribe in northern Arizona, to The Associated Press. "We have to protect the beauty and grandeur of this place many tribes call home."

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In 2012, former President Barack Obama placed a 20-year moratorium on uranium mining in the region in order to "protect our precious environmental and cultural resources," wrote The Washington Post. The protections will expire in January 2032. However, in 2020, former President Donald Trump proposed removing Obama's protections, but the proposal was never finalized. The energy industry is now hoping to gain access to the land. Scott Melbye, executive vice president of Uranium Energy and president of the Uranium Producers of America, argued to the Post that "creating a National Monument in Northern Arizona would erect a needless, unscientific barrier to the responsible development of some of America's best clean energy resources."

How protected is protected land?

Despite the seemingly strong laws around designations like national parks or monuments, they aren't necessarily airtight. Trump removed a number of federal protections during his presidency, the most of any president, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Science. He reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument by 51%. Trump also opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, according to Rolling Stone.

Land protections can be undermined in a number of ways, including through executive orders, congressional policies, agency rules, and Supreme Court rulings. While the designation and altering of national monument designations almost fall completely on the president, legal changes like new interpretations of environmental laws are much harder to reverse. For example, the Supreme Court narrowed what is considered a wetland, allowing for more bodies of water to become susceptible to pollution and development since the regions are no longer regulated by the Clean Water Act. "With the most damaging policy decisions and initiatives, the problem is when they have been done by rule-making and not executive orders and they have political support in the Senate, in particular, it can be hard to undo those things," remarked Jim Lyons, the deputy assistant secretary for Land and Mineral Management at the Interior Department during the Obama administration.

The president also appoints agency heads as well as budgets for them. Agencies like the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management have control over a number of public lands. Those running the agencies can alter how the public land is managed. "If you want to drill, mine and exploit the public estate for the benefit of the industry, the last thing you want is a popular and respected agency's voice raising alarms on behalf of conservation and historic preservation," commented Jonathan B. Jarvis and Destry Jarvis in The Guardian.

Can lifted protections be reinstated?

While protective measures can be lifted, they can also be reinstated, but there could be some difficulty based on how the land was protected. Trump's reduction of Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante was highly contested because many legal scholars argued that presidents only have the power to designate national monuments, but need congressional approval to change or remove them under the 1906 Antiquities Act. However, there was no solid legal precedent set before Trump, allowing him to act through an executive order. President Biden restored protections to Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante in 2021 through an executive order as well.

The difficulties arise when promises were already made on the land. Biden recently approved a substantial oil drilling project called the Willow Project, which was previously approved by Trump. Sources told CNN that Biden "had few options to cancel or significantly curtail the project," despite heavy backlash from environmental groups. The other way for protections to be reinstated is for Congress to pass laws ensuring protections like the Clean Water Act, which are much more difficult to remove.

Obama's protection of the Grand Canyon's surrounding area was not through a national monument designation and was a time-limited protection that "only blocked new uranium and other hard-rock mines, not existing ones," per the Post. Advocates are calling for a national monument designation to provide stronger protection like Biden's designation of Spirit Mountain. Other than under Trump, national monuments are mostly left alone once designated. A law would provide even stronger protection, "But given the makeup of the Natural Resources Committee and given the indications," remarked Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) to the Post, "this legislation will never see daylight."

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Devika Rao

Devika Rao is a staff writer for The Week. She graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Environment and Sustainability and a minor in Climate Change. Previously, she worked as a Policy and Advocacy associate in the nonprofit space advocating for environmental action from the business perspective. She is passionate about the environment, books, and music.