Biden moves to protect vast sacred lands near Grand Canyon

By Nandita Bose

TUSAYAN, Arizona (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden curbed land development on a stretch of nearly 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) near Arizona’s iconic Grand Canyon on Tuesday, a move intended to cement his environmental credentials in the electoral battleground state.

Biden used the Antiquities Act to designate the area as the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, a move disparaged by some officials and mining interests but long sought by tribes that trace their origin to the lands.

According to the White House, it is the fifth new national monument established by the president.

The new area, whose name is drawn from the languages of the nearby Havasupai and Hopi tribes, straddles the existing Grand Canyon National Park, where the U.S. government forcibly removed Native Americans a century ago. It boasts bison, bald eagles and sites held as sacred by several tribes.

It is also home to about 1% of the country’s known uranium reserves, according to a Biden administration official, who said existing rights to mine, hunt, fish and graze will be respected. The land is currently covered by a two-decade mining moratorium.

“Preserving these lands is good not only for Arizona, but for the planet,” Biden said. “It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the soul of the nation,” he added, alluding to one of his re-election campaign themes.

Biden, a Democrat seeking another four-year term in 2024 who has been endorsed by groups including the Sierra Club, has nonetheless angered some environmental groups with moves like the approval of ConocoPhillips’ $7 billion oil and gas drilling project Willow in Alaska.

While U.S. national parks can be created only by an act of Congress, national monuments can be designated unilaterally by presidents using the Antiquities Act, a century-old federal law meant to protect sacred sites, artifacts and historical objects.

Arizona has emerged as a key battleground state that the Biden campaign plans to target with money and personnel. Biden won the state by less than 1 percentage point in 2020, four years after former President Donald Trump took the state by 3.5 percentage points.

Biden’s Western swing marks a stark contrast to the controversy swirling around Trump, his top Republican rival, who was indicted last week for the third time in four months, this time for wide-ranging attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

Biden has declined to comment on his opponent’s legal troubles.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Arizona; Writing by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Leslie Adler, Dan Whitcomb, Christopher Cushing and Aurora Ellis)