Men's Journal

Congressman Raúl Grijalva’s Stand for Public Lands

 Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

No public figure has been more vocal about saving public lands than Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. Recently he’s been taking the fight to the airwaves, speaking about the unexpected costs of the border wall, how Trump’s proposed budget could impact the Grand Canyon, and speaking out against special interest groups that are teaching climate denial. While visiting with constituents in Arizona, the Congressman took a break to talk to Men’s Journal about today’s biggest threats to the environment, mining operations in his native state, and what public lands mean to him.  

Let’s start with your backyard. The Grand Canyon is a National Park, but you’ve proposed creating a national monument around the area of the park. Why?

Right now there is a 20-year moratorium that bans uranium mining around the Grand Canyon. That is something we need to indefinitely sustain. The reason for that moratorium was to be able to truly study the impacts, past and future, of uranium mining and the threat that it poses both to the Grand Canyon as a whole and to the river itself. There’s a history of contamination up in northern Arizona, particularly in the Navajo countries, with uranium mining — we’re still doing cleanups 25 years later, and billions of dollars is needed to truly clean up that area and to treat the people who got sick. That ban, I think, is important to sustain for the long-term viability of the canyon.

If there was ever an opportunity to change the fundamental policies about what are the priorities in our public lands, and if there was ever an opportunity to weaken and change bedrock environmental laws, this is it.

The areas around Coronado National Forest are also under threat from mining ventures.

The issue with the Coronado is that you have to conduct land trades. Then waste is dumped on forest land; that’s why the trade is needed. With the potential contamination of aquifers, as well as the historic and cultural areas, you’re taking valuable public land and taking it out of a public utility use and putting it into private mining. That just changes the whole scope and sequence of how that has been used, historically.

What sort of hurdles do you face when you try to create these protections or designations?

As you move to try to create protections, you run into mining interests. You’ve got to remember that most of these conglomerates that are doing mining on public land are not mom-and-pop mining operations. These are international mining corporations based all around the world. The one at Apache Leap, Resolution Copper Mining, is an Australian company. The Rosemont Copper mine in Coronado is being pursued by a company from Canada. You’re talking about multinational corporations that extract assets.

And there’s not one penny paid in royalties. Gas and oil royalties go into a fund for restoration and remediation once the work is done. Mining pays none. The thing we run headlong into is the 1872 mining law, which effectively says you can’t say no on public land to mining operations. There has to be options presented, and then there has to be litigation. Congress is now trying to eliminate options and litigation so that the only response would be to say, “Go ahead,” and issue permits.

Speaking of the restoration fund, how exactly does the Land and Water Conservation Fund work?

It provides grants and assistance to states and local communities to develop urban park areas, because urban areas are a constituency that needs to participate more in our public lands. It also provides the funding for when there are willing sellers of holdings of private lands that might be of environmental importance or for conservation.

There’s a five-year cycle on it, and it’s up again this year for reauthorization. But Republicans don’t seem willing to reauthorize it.

We’ve put our legislation in to fully fund it and to permanently authorize it, and not be going on five-year cycles. It’s critical, because it’s how we are able to create more urban interfaith areas for public land experiences and parks. It’s been a critical issue for states in terms of acquisition of land. It’s very, very supported in a bipartisan way. So we’re hopeful, and we’re going to give it a shot again.

Directly communicating to elected representatives and telling them why they think these areas and these spaces need to be preserved is what drives decision-making in Congress.

There’s a lot of environmental norms that seem to be currently under attack. The Antiquities Act has always had bipartisan support, for the most part, but now Rep. Rob Bishop from Utah is fighting its use for Bears Ears National Monument.

The Utah delegation, beginning with Chairman Bishop on the Resources Committee is lobbying hard [for] this administration to undo it. I don’t think it’s going to work, and I think the legal challenge from that kind of an executive order on the part of the administration, from President Trump, is not going to hold. They’re going to have to try to do it legislatively, and I think that’s difficult. National popularity and support for monument development continues to be very strong. Last session, in Congress, there were 22 bills to limit, repeal, or constrict the use of the Antiquities Act by [Obama]. The Antiquities Act has been used by Republican and Democratic presidents throughout its history. I don’t see that changing.

What is your relationship like with Rep. Bishop?

Civil, amiable on a personal level. On a policy level, separate, and we have to push back on the positions that he wants to promote. There is just a complete philosophical difference there. Republicans see (things) right now as a perfect storm. They control Congress and the executive brand. If there was ever an opportunity to weaken or undo the Antiquities Act, if there was ever an opportunity to change the fundamental policies about the priorities in our public lands, and if there was ever an opportunity to weaken and change bedrock environmental laws, this is it. They know that, and we know that. Are there areas we should work around? Yeah. Theoretically, this administration wants an infrastructure package.

The infrastructure package could be something you come together upon?

We have a backlog of maintenance in our public lands that goes into the billions. We all want trails to be fixed, we all want access to be better, we all want campgrounds to be upgraded, we want sanitary facilities to be available to visitors. I think there are opportunities to have constructive investment in our public land.

There’s a $1.5 billion cut even in this 2017 budget for Interior, which is where the public lands are. And even more going into the 2018 budget. Every time we cut it, we cut personnel, we cut access, we cut safety and security for visitors, and we cut the American people’s full experience in these places. There’s a $30 million or $40 million in waste water improvement that must happen at the Grand Canyon. That is an environmental crisis waiting to happen. Those are urgencies that we could all be working on. So if there’s going to be an infrastructure bill, instead of talking just merely about how we need to get rid of these laws so that we can get economic benefit out of our public lands, we should be asking, “What can we invest in them to make them more secure for generations to come?”

How can citizens protect their public lands?

Public lands are an asset owned by everybody. The Grand Canyon happens to be in Arizona, and that is wonderful for Arizona, but the ownership is nationwide. If Bears Ears happens to be in Utah, that’s great for Utah, but the ownership is nationwide. Public opinion is against the federal government turning over these lands to states or counties — this is a shared asset. We want to raise the profile, both in the informative way, but also in a way that people can then communicate. Directly communicating to elected representatives and telling them why they think these areas and these spaces need to be preserved is what drives decision making in Congress.

What’s your personal relationship like with public lands? 

I grew up on a ranch; my dad worked on a cattle ranch in southern Arizona. We grew up with these vast expanses. As I got older and lived in Tucson, I realized, you look around you and you take a lot of this for granted. You take Sky Island for granted, you take Saguaro National Park for granted. They’re just there and they’re part of the fabric.

When I started working as a supervisor in Pima County, we passed the Sonora Desert Conservation Plan. That was to help manage growth in such a way that we were able to conserve habitat. And having participated in that, over time, I was beginning to connect the dots. The public lands that we protect are also one of the vital sources for the clean water that we drink in our communities. The public lands that we support provide multi-use recreation for people. The public lands that we preserve also keep history alive and they give us a connection to our past as we go forward.