With National Monument designation, Biden tries to balance electoral realities

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With National Monument designation, Biden tries to balance electoral realities
President Joe Biden speaks to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) ahead of his remarks on the establishment of the Baaj Nwaavjo I'tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, at the Historic Red Butte Airfield in Tusayan, Ariz., Aug. 8, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

by Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Lisa Friedman and David Iversen

ALBUQUERQUE, NM.- After spending most of his appearance near the Grand Canyon describing how his fifth national monument designation would preserve sagebrush, bighorn sheep and 450 kinds of birds, President Joe Biden said Tuesday that protecting the land long held sacred by Native American leaders was not just a matter of the environment.

“By creating this monument, we’re setting aside new spaces for families to bike, hunt, fish and camp, growing the tourism economy,” Biden said as he declared nearly 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon as a national monument, with the 300-million-year-old “majestic red cliffs” serving as his backdrop.

“Preserving these lands is good not only for Arizona, but for the planet,” he said. “It’s good for the economy.”

Biden has often framed his climate investments as a means to spur domestic energy production and create thousands of jobs for blue-collar workers. But when he traveled to Arizona to announce a permanent ban on uranium mining in the area, he also nodded to other crucial constituencies: environmental activists and tribal leaders who have pressed the administration to make good on its ambitious campaign promises to protect the environment and ancestral homelands.

The White House has presented Biden’s sales pitch for legislation aimed at cutting planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the Inflation Reduction Act, as a job-growth machine to appeal to the middle class. But the administration knows that those who care about protecting the environment and preserving lands stripped from tribal nations are crucial voters, particularly in the battleground state of Arizona.

The balancing act was reflected during Biden’s visit to the mountainous range of Red Butte near the Grand Canyon, where he spoke of job creation while also acknowledging environmental activists and tribal leaders.

Indigenous people, Biden said, “fought for decades to be able to return to these lands, to protect these lands from mining and development, to clear them of contamination to preserve their shared legacy.”

The White House hopes Biden’s message is received by not just Native Americans but also young and climate-conscious voters, many of whom have yet to be fired up by his economy-first message.

About 71% of Americans say they have heard “little” or “nothing at all” about the Inflation Reduction Act one year after it was signed, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll. And most Americans — 57% — disapprove of Biden’s handling of climate change, according to the poll. Recent polls also show that voter sentiment on the economy continues to drive the president’s negative approval ratings.

Biden has been inconsistent in his efforts to protect federal lands and waters. This year, he approved the Willow project, a large oil-drilling development in the pristine Arctic wilderness. The administration also approved more oil and gas permits in its first two years than President Donald Trump did in his, and agreed to a series of compromises in the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature climate law, to allow offshore oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

“It’s a pick-your-battle environment,” said Joel Clement, a former policy director at the Interior Department.

Clement, who is now a senior program officer at the Lemelson Foundation, a philanthropic group funding work on climate change, said he believed the Biden administration was intent on protecting Indigenous lands and culture, and also on blocking as much fossil fuel production as it could.

But, he said, “The calculus revolves around how much damage they can weather from the right on each of these things.”

The Biden administration needs to amp up its climate change messaging as campaign season heats up, said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which has conducted surveys on Americans’ climate opinions since 2007.

While the message about jobs and the economy might be a winning strategy in a general election, Leiserowitz said Biden’s base of climate-focused voters want to see the president use the bully pulpit to talk more about replacing fossil fuels, the burning of which is dangerously heating the planet.

“They have more teachable moments to talk about climate change with the American people than any other president in history because we are getting hit every day by another two-by-four of climate extremes on steroids,” Leiserowitz said.

Biden leaned into that message Tuesday, describing his efforts to combat the effects of climate change, including investing $720 million for Native American communities to ease the impact of droughts and rising sea levels. Standing before an Arizona delegation as well as tribal leaders donning traditional attire, Biden framed the Inflation Reduction Act as the biggest investment in climate conservation and environmental justice on record.

But his announcement also highlighted the risks Biden faces as he seeks to conserve lands while also promoting the expansion of clean energy. Uranium is a fuel most widely used for nuclear plants, a key source of energy that does not produce carbon dioxide emissions.

As countries work to curb planet-warming greenhouse gasses, competition for uranium is expected to increase, according to experts. The United States imports the majority of its uranium from Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia and Russia.

Paul Goranson, the CEO of enCore Energy, which has mining claims in the Grand Canyon area, said the uranium found there is of a higher grade than in other parts of the United States. Cutting off that supply, he said, will keep the United States reliant on imports, which could have an impact on national security and hurt the Biden administration’s ability to develop zero-emissions energy sources to fight climate change.

“It seems the timing is a bit inconsistent with the president’s objectives for clean energy,” Goranson said. “It doesn’t seem to be aligning with his stated clean energy targets.”

The Biden administration has argued that the Grand Canyon region contains just about 1.3% of the country’s uranium reserves. Environmental groups also noted that because the area was under a 20-year moratorium imposed during the Obama administration, no mining would have occurred for at least a decade anyway.

Republicans blasted Biden’s decision this week. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a supporter of nuclear energy, accused the president of “supporting our enemies” by blocking uranium production. American companies currently pay around $1 billion a year to Russia’s state-owned nuclear agency to buy uranium.

The White House’s balancing act of framing its agenda as a boon to domestic investment and job growth, as well as a way to combat climate change and advance environmental justice, will continue throughout the reelection campaign, according to senior White House officials. After Biden was endorsed by the four largest environmental groups in the United States in June, the president celebrated days later at a rally for union workers.

“The investment isn’t only going to help us save the planet, it’s going to create jobs — lots of jobs, tens of thousands of good-paying union jobs,” Biden reminded AFL-CIO members at the rally in Philadelphia.

That strategy was evident Tuesday. As Biden talked about the importance of protecting the country’s natural wonders, Vice President Kamala Harris joined Labor Department officials in Philadelphia to speak to construction workers about efforts to raise their wages.

And after the event at the Grand Canyon, Biden traveled to Albuquerque, where he will describe how his signature climate and clean energy bill also creates manufacturing jobs in the clean energy sector.

John Leshy, a public lands expert who served in the Interior Department during the administrations of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, said trade-offs between developing renewable energy to fight climate change and conserving and protecting public lands will only increase in the years to come.

“We’ve got a catastrophe in the offing if we don’t move rapidly to decarbonize,” Leshy said. “I don’t think that means opening up the Grand Canyon to uranium mining everywhere, but in some situations it does mean we’re going to have to grit our teeth” to allow for more minerals development, he said.

For Carletta Tilousi, a member of the Havasupai Tribe, Biden’s monument designation means that her ancestors “are finally going to be feeling rested.”

“A lot of these areas are in places where there were once gathering sites of tribal people and many years ago, hundred years ago, where our ancestors once roamed and we still roam today here,” she said. “But I believe those areas are very important to our existence.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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