Have You Seen My Grand Canyon?

There is a well-known story about the time Harav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, zt”l, at an advanced age, traveled to Switzerland and remarked, “When I come before Hashem, He will say to me — ‘Did you see My Alps?’”

Any number of places on the North American continent could easily compete with the famed mountains of Europe. One of them, arguably the most magnificent of all, is the Grand Canyon.

When we think of a site in our country — the kind of superlative work of Creation about which we could possibly be held to account for failing to visit in our lifetimes — the Grand Canyon likely comes to mind.

Some of those who are aware of its existence and intend to one day go there rationalize that there’s time left to do so. When the right time comes — and hopefully Moshiach will be here far sooner — the magnificence of the Grand Canyon will still be there, untouched.

Now, we are being warned, that’s not necessarily the case.

Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain, and Mark Udall, son of the late Rep. Morris Udall, recently wrote a joint opinion piece in which they declare, “The Grand Canyon isn’t nearly as protected as people think it is.”

The Grand Canyon today is threatened, as it has been numerous times before, with despoliation by commercial development. A 20-year ban on mining claims on some one million acres of public land surrounding the park soon expires.

Presented with evidence that uranium mining could contaminate the water sources of the Grand Canyon and harm its ecosystem, five federal agencies recommended that new uranium claims be put on hold pending further investigation. In 2012, Ken Salazar, then the interior secretary, agreed to do so.

Opinion surveys show that about two-thirds of the people of Arizona, where the Grand Canyon is located, support extending the ban. Most of that sentiment is based on concern for the environment, but there are other concerns as well.

Several Native American tribes — including the Havasupai, Hopi, Navajo, Hualapai and the Zuni — have communities in and around the Canyon, and many believe their vital interests would be affected adversely if mining firms were allowed to start digging.

For one thing, the water supply of the Havasupai people would be at risk from a plan to drill down 1,475 feet for the precious ore, then truck it 250 miles to a processing mill in Utah. The Havasupai irrigate the land to grow their beans, corn, melon and peach trees.

The Canadian company Energy Fuels promises to avoid damaging the water supply, but the Havasupai and their allies have no faith in such promises, especially given the little that is known about subterranean water flow, the U.K.’s Guardian reported.

The concerns are not strictly material, either. Other tribes mentioned fear of desecration of what they regard as the sacred lands of their ancestors. Theirs is not the faith of most Americans, and this would not be the first time that their religious sensibilities have been trampled. But respecting the rights of these minority groups is the right thing to do for many reasons, including the fact that it also helps protect the rights of all minorities and all religions.

Mining companies aren’t the only ones who see something in the Grand Canyon besides awesome vistas. A group of developers from Scottsdale envision the so-called Escalade Tramway. This would mean installing gondolas to take tourists from the Canyon’s rim to near the river’s edge, where they would be able to enjoy such amenities as a retail complex, food court and amphitheater overlooking the Confluence. The proposal was voted down by the Navajo in 2017, but these and other entrepreneurs will surely be back.

Some things haven’t changed. One man’s marvel on which to gaze in awe is another man’s chance to cash in.

There were those who wanted to mine the Grand Canyon for zinc and copper early in the 20th century. President Theodore Roosevelt said no. In 1908, he declared it a national monument.

Since then, the cause of preserving the Grand Canyon has transcended party and faction. Following Republican President Roosevelt, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, liberal Congressman Democrat Mo Udall and Republican President Gerald Ford are among those who have lent their hands to legislation to expand and protect the Grand Canyon.

At this juncture in American history, which unfortunately has so far been notable for its bipartisan rancor and failure to work together on even the most basic responsibilities of government (read: shutdown), the Grand Canyon is a bipartisan concern that should be a unifying point for Republicans and Democrats alike.

“There’s not a single person in Arizona today who would say the Grand Canyon was a mistake,” said Stewart Udall, secretary of the Interior (1961-69).

But to allow this national treasure to be destroyed, even partially, certainly would be a grievous and irremediable error.