How much of a buffer around the Grand Canyon is enough?
It's a question that came up when federal officials proposed a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mines in the region.
Ultimately, they decided on about a million acres of federal lands north and south of the national park, where mining was already off limits.
Now, a consortium of conservation groups has taken much the same area and expanded it into a proposed national monument of 1.7 million acres. It would extend from about 20 miles south of Tusayan north to the Utah border and be called the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument.
The mining moratorium was needed, the groups said, because a federal law dating back to 1872 otherwise required federal land managers outside national parks to allow hard-rock mining.
But the new proposal appears to grow out of the groups' frustration with other land management practices on the Kaibab National Forest and by the Bureau of Land Management. They don't like how the forest has been logged, how cattle have been allowed to graze, how roads have been allowed to proliferate and how cultural sites have been left unprotected. If the land is designated a federal monument, all of those activities could be more tightly controlled or even eliminated.
To proponents of the monument, this is certainly a simpler conservation strategy than having to monitor and attempt to modify the multiple-use strategies employed by managers on the national forest and BLM lands. They have used this tactic to the east and the west, where the Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon Parashant national monuments, respectively, have designated millions of acres of federal lands mainly for conservation.
The latest monument, however, would be in the heart of the Arizona Strip and the Kaibab National Forest, a region whose economy has been dependent on mining, ranching and logging on multi-purpose federal lands for more than a century. Locking it away from further use just because it borders the national park isn't good enough -- even if it has Grand Canyon in its name.
Backers point to an inventory of unique plants, animals and cultural sites deserving of protection even if the Grand Canyon weren't at the new monument's doorstep. Combine that with a century of mismanagement by federal agencies, and the rationale for stronger protection should be obvious, they say.
That might turn out to be the case, but we'd be more convinced if a disinterested third party considered the following questions:
-- Is multiple use no longer feasible if the natural qualities of the region are to be preserved?
-- Are those natural qualities special enough to justify federal protected status?
-- Do all 1.7 million acres need to be protected in what amounts to a nearly unbroken landscape 100 miles wide and 100 miles deep?
-- Can the conservation strategies employed by current land managers be made more responsive to concerns raised by monument proponents -- without the need to create a monument?
At some point, buffer zones, even for one of the world's great natural wonders, have to stand on their own as worthy of protection. The national park boundary on the North Rim is already 25 miles from the canyon's edge. Essentially extending it all the way to the Utah border is a big step, and we trust it won't be taken until our questions and others like them are answered in full.
Our View: A new national monument extending all the way to the Utah border should have outstanding natural qualities that override traditional multiple uses.