Originally published on National Geographic on November 24, 2015
I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on the Grand Canyon.
It was late fall of 1974 and I was driving back east to New York after two months of rock climbing and living in Yosemite Valley, California. I had been behind the wheel of my old VW Bug for most of the day, stopping every so often to walk and take in the views.
As the sun kissed the western horizon, I arrived at the South Rim and jumped out of my car. The panorama unfolded before me as I approached the edge. I was floored. Looking across the yawning gap, with its mighty river and layered colors cooling in the dusk, I felt a slack-jawed, spiritual awe. It reminded me of seeing Yosemite for the first time a few months earlier, but this experience was somehow larger, deeper, and more infinite.
Unfortunately, this magnificent landscape is at grave risk from the effects of uranium mining. While Grand Canyon National Park protects this section of the Colorado River and its banks, the surrounding watershed that directly feeds the river is not protected, and it harbors hundreds of uranium claims, several abandoned mines, and several proposed mining sites.
Nearly 30 million Americans depend on the Colorado River for drinking water, yet uranium mining—notoriously toxic and hard-to-contain—is proceeding within the Canyon’s tributaries. Past and present mining have rendered groundwater unsafe to drink, with at least one sample showing uranium levels to be 1,200 times the safe limit, according to a National Park Service report.
Abandoned mines near the Grand Canyon have left a toxic legacy. A 2010 US Geological Survey report found that 15 springs and five wells within the watershed had unsafe levels of dissolved uranium “related to mining processes.” More than 500 abandoned mines on the nearby Navajo Nation have left Navajo citizens devastated by organ cancers and other illnesses.
In 2012, the Obama administration passed a 20-year moratorium on new mines within the watershed, but private and foreign mining companies, including one owned by the Russian government, are fighting to have it overturned. Represented by the National Mining Associationthese companies are challenging the ban in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Shockingly, the states of Utah, Arizona, Montana, and Nevada have each filed briefs in support of NMA’s action.
Failing to safeguard the Grand Canyon from uranium mining would not only open our country’s most iconic landscape to degradation and jeopardize the health and drinking water of millions. It would also be bad economics. An intact and protected Grand Canyon is crucial to the livelihood of Arizona’s citizens. In 2013, more than 4 million park visitors spent upwards of $467 million. Statewide outdoor recreation in Arizona generates 104,000 jobs and $787 million in tax revenues.
America has a historic opportunity to protect the Grand Canyon from uranium mining and save this national treasure for future generations. On November 3, Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) filed legislation that will do just that. The Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument Act would preserve 1.7 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. Given the unlikelihood of Congress acting, President Obama should use his authority under the Antiquities Act to declare the land a national monument.
I stood there as the sun set. Yellow gave way to pink, vermillion, blue, and finally darkness. I felt very small, but deeply connected to the vast sweep of geologic time, and humbled and inspired by the splendors of our miraculous planet. I’ve returned to the Grand Canyon several times since, alone and with family and friends. Each time, it reminds me of its incalculable value, challenges my imagination, and invigorates my spirit. We need to seize this chance to protect it.
Peter Metcalf is the CEO, president and founder of Black Diamond Equipment, a global leader in climbing and ski-mountaineering gear. Metcalf currently serves as a director of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank’s Salt Lake City office and a board member of the outdoor industry’s Conservation Alliance. Prior to founding Black Diamond in 1989, Peter served as the general manager of Chouinard Equipment, a subsidiary of Patagonia, and completed multiple alpine-style first ascents in the Alaska range. Peter holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Colorado.