In the midst of a Northern Arizona plateau, a rust-colored hill rises steeply from a base of sandstone to a summit of volcanic rock. The Havasupai Tribe (“the Tribe”) refers to this land as the “mountain of the clenched fist,” and it is one of their most sacred spaces. More commonly known as Red Butte, this property has faced mining threats for decades. Objections based on the site’s cultural and religious significance have been considered and outweighed, leading to mountainside protests and legal action. In 2013, the Tribe filed suit challenging the approval of resumed operations at Canyon Mine, a uranium mining site just four miles from Red Butte.
In Grand Canyon Trust v. Williams, the District Court for the District of Arizona denied the Tribe’s motion for summary judgment on all four claims. Among other assertions, the Tribe alleged that the valid existing rights (VER) determination completed by the Forest Service was inadequate, but the court held that the plaintiffs lacked standing. Using Grand Canyon Trust as an example, this In Brief will analyze the inability of current law to protect tribal property rights from mining projects. Moreover, it will show how the outcome of Grand Canyon Trust demonstrates how current mining law restricts the ability of Native American communities to claim lands in the interest of environmental and cultural preservation. Moving forward, tribes and environmental groups should continue exploring alternative legal sources of land protection.