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AZ House speaker: New national monument takes important land decisions away from states

Last year, President Joe Biden designated nearly 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon a national monument. But now, the top Arizona legislative Republicans are suing over it — calling it an unlawful “land grab.”

House Speaker Ben Toma and Senate President Warren Petersen’s arguments center around the language in the Antiquities Act, but much of this debate has to do with uranium mining in the area, which will be off limits within the national monument. 

Speaker Toma joined The Show to talk more about it.

LAUREN GILGER: So you are calling this, in this lawsuit, a land grab. Tell us first why?

BEN TOMA: Well, if you look at the actual Antiquities Act, it states that the president may reserve parcels of land as part of a national monument, as you correctly said. But the limits of those parcels shall be “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” So when you look at the Biden administration designation of nearly a million acres at this point as a national monument, it’s clearly an overextension of that of that Antiquities Act. Again, the act was meant to protect the small, specific areas of historical or maybe scientific value — not basically vast landscapes in northern Arizona.

GILGER: Let’s talk about uranium mining, then. This area is rich in uranium, and that has obviously some big implications for our energy. This will limit the amount of mining for uranium that could be done in that area. There is a new mine there that just started production that was grandfathered in. So there is uranium mining happening in that area. But what are your concerns about stopping this kind of production in the future?

TOMA: Well, to us it seems like the designation serves political interests more than it does — actually hinders practical land users at the end of the day. And so, yeah, economic production of working lands for industries like mining, as you correctly pointed out, is a major issue here, because once this is designated, then the president’s administration, they strictly limit the use and and the development of land.

So uranium is an important asset. There are lots of other minerals that are that are important as well in the area. And so we need access to it.

If you think about this from a different perspective, this act, if this is allowed to stand, then every Western state that has large percentages of federally controlled land within their borders should be concerned that the president can simply designate it, and with just a designation have complete control over how they develop their their natural resources in the near future.

GILGER: You also have concerns that you outlined in the lawsuit here about the financial impact on the state.

TOMA: Sure. The economic production, as I said, of these lands doesn’t only affect the state — it also affects the local area, the development of the area. And I think for me that’s a very important area because we’re protecting these areas from the federal government’s vast overreach.

GILGER: When the president came to Arizona to sign the proclamation designating this monument, he talked about how it was about protecting thousands of sacred and cultural sites, which many tribes in the area have wanted to protect for some time. I wonder what your conversations have been like with tribal members and tribes in this area. Have you had those conversations, and what do they say?

TOMA: Well, I can’t speak to the specific requirements or or the talking points, if you will, of the tribes themselves. But what I can say is, as I said before, the reality of it is all Western states — and this really only affects Western states because of the fact that we have such large percentage of federal lands — if the federal government wants to do something specific to say, creating a new national park or something like that, where it’s a vast amount of land, then there should be a process for that. But it can’t be just the administration itself deciding this unilaterally without the input of the local state government. And that’s really the problem.

And I understand, everybody’s got a different perspective on this. At the end of the day, our partners among the Native American tribes also have their perspective on this. But they have their areas. We respect their reservations. We respect their national sovereignty when it comes to their lands. This is not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about large, large areas that really are within the borders of the state and a large overreach by the administration.

GILGER: I want to ask one more question on that front. The Havasupai tribe in particular has fought against the opening of the new mine that’s already begun operating there, the Pinyon Plain Mine. They say it will hurt their only water source — that’s an aquifer in the area. Are you concerned about groundwater in that area and the protections that it might lose?

TOMA: I think it was right before on your show that you had a conversation about groundwater. That’s a different discussion, which we can get into at some length I’m sure. And it’s a very complicated issue. What I can say, though, is the reality of it is if we don’t become energy independent and and also mineral independent, then we’re going to be dependent on on getting these minerals for our national security and for our economy from other places, most specifically China and places that are not our friends. So quite frankly I understand the concern, but I respectfully disagree.

GILGER: It’s interesting because when you’re talking about uranium, it’s sort of a balance between what happens on the land where these mines have to take place, but also going toward an independent and a green energy future, right?

TOMA: Well, sure. But again, whether we’re talking about uranium or some of the other minerals that we need absolutely in order to function as an economy, it’s important that we become as efficient as possible. And not only that, but we also have redundancy. If something were to happen and we no longer have access to a source that we currently have access to, we have to have redundancy for national security reasons.

And so again, I understand that some may not like it. But at the end of the day, we have proven ways that we can do this in a reasonable way. We can extract these minerals responsibly. We can protect groundwater. And whatever those requirements are, I’m happy to have that discussion. But just a complete shutdown — unilaterally, like I said before, with the administration just deciding this all on their own without any input from the state and any approval from us as a Legislature — is a massive overreach.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.