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Arizona Republicans sue Biden administration over Grand Canyon monument designation

Calling it an unlawful "land grab,'' the top legislative Republicans filed suit Monday against President Joe Biden over his decision last year to designate nearly 1 million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon as a national monument.

In legal papers filed in federal court here, attorneys for Senate President Warren Petersen and House Speaker Ben Toma acknowledge that the 1906 federal Antiquities Act does allow a president to set aside parcels of land for protection.

But they say such a proclamation has to be limited to historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest. More to the point, they argue that such designations have to be confined to the "smallest area compatible'' with the care and management of the items to be protected.

And they contend the Baaj Nwaajo I'tah Kukeveni Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument — the formal name for 1,462 square miles of the site — meets neither requirement.

Claim of harm to Arizona

"Congress passed the Antiquities Act to protect just that: antiquities,'' the lawsuit says. "It did not pass the law to allow the Biden administration to declare every inch of federal land a federal forest, cut off from all but those it selects.''

All of the designated lands already are federal property. But Petersen and Toma contend the state is harmed by the designation because it will make it more difficult for the state to manage its own lands which are adjacent to the new monument.

They also cite the uranium deposits in the area which would be inaccessible within the national monument. And that, they said, undermines the ability of Arizona utilities to get the fuel they need for their power plants.

"A significant portion of energy produced and consumed in Arizona comes from nuclear power,'' the pair said, with the figure in 2022 hitting 29% of total electricity net generation in the state.

What makes the monument significant, the lawsuit says, is that, for the moment, domestic nuclear energy production is dependent on foreign imports of uranium. And that, the legal papers say, puts nuclear power at risk if foreign nations suspend uranium exports to the United States.

"There is every reason to believe such a risk exists,'' Petersen and Toma said.

"Many uranium imports come from foreign companies owned by nations, like Russia, with interests adverse to the interests of the United States and who 'leverage' their control over those companies 'to further geopolitical ambitions.'"

Limited mining

Utilities aside, the two say there's a financial impact on the state — and its residents and businesses — because of the ban on new mining within the monument given the fees and tax dollars generated to the state and Mohave County.

"Diminishing the tax contribution form the mining operations will simply shift the tax burden to other parties or require governments to cut necessary services,'' they claim.

And Petersen and Toma say that new uranium mining would be economically beneficial to area communities. They cite a 2009 study that indicated that uranium mining would provide a $29 billion benefit to local economies in northern Arizona and southern Utah over 42 years.

While the monument designation does permanently block new uranium claims, it allows current grazing leases, hunting and fishing and other activities to continue. And Arizona will continue to have control of fish and wildlife issues.

There was no immediate response from the Biden administration.

Courts rule for monuments

Getting a court to rule in the state's favor could prove difficult.

Last year a federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by the state of Utah and several counties that sought to roll back Biden's previous expansions of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in that state. U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffer said every previous effort to challenge the president's authority to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act had been rejected, including rulings by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

More to the point, Nuffer noted that only Congress has the power to limit the president's authority or roll back monument designations. He pointed to laws previously passed limiting new monuments in Alaska and Wyoming.
"Congress knows how to restrict statutory presidential power,'' Nuffer wrote in his ruling throwing out Utah's lawsuit. "Otherwise, the terms of the statute control.''

Petersen, however, said the litigation is justified.

"Biden's maneuver is incredibly disingenuous, as it has nothing to do with protecting actual artifacts,'' he said in a prepared statement.

"Instead, it aims to halt all mining, ranching and other local uses of federal lands that are critical to our energy independence from adversary foreign nations, our food supply, and the strength of our economy,'' he continued. "We look forward to prevailing in court and for the president's abuse of power to be reined in.''

Hobbs supports monument

Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs had urged Biden to create the monument.

In a May letter to the president, she wrote that tribes deserved to have the area protected. And she said her office had "heard from people across the political spectrum including sporting groups, faith leaders, outdoor recreation businesses, conservation groups and others from a broad array of interests that support this monument designation.''

Gubernatorial press aide Christian Slater said Monday his boss still stands by her support.

"The designation of Baaj Nwaavjo I'tah Kukveni will safeguard one of Arizona's most important water supplies, continue to support strong economic activity in communities across the state, and preserve a cultural and natural treasure for future generations,'' he said. "Opposition to this designation goes against the best interests of all Arizonans and ignores the shared benefits of recognizing this land.''

According to the White House, the formal name for the monument translates in part in Havasupai to "where Indigenous peoples roam'' and in Hopi to "our ancestral footprints.'' The administration said at the time, with Biden coming to Arizona to sign the proclamation, that it is designed to preserve thousands of cultural and sacred sites that are significant for a dozen Indian tribes that have lived in the area.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct which languages are included in the formal name for the monument.

Capitol Media Services' Bob Christie contributed to this report.

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