Today, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar demonstrated his conservation leadership by halting the race to mine uranium at the edge of the Grand Canyon National Park for six months, and setting the stage for a full 20-year withdrawal. As John Podesta and other conservation leaders stated in their request several weeks ago, this move by the administration is necessary to protect one of America’s greatest assets and one of the world’s natural treasures.
For those of you that do not follow the politics of our public lands, this might seem like an obvious choice, made simply to capture headlines about protecting Grand Canyon National Park. However, when it comes to public lands these days, it requires a fight to protect even the greatest of places.
Back in 2008, the New York Times broke the story that a British company had begun exploratory drilling just miles from one of the main entrances to Grand Canyon National Park. This shined a national spot light on a mining boom that was growing across the West.
Many of the foreign-owned mining companies responsible for the boom were staking claims right outside national parks. The Pew Environment Group’s Ten Treasures at Stake report depicts in great detail the growing threat. Data from the Bureau of Land Management cited in the report shows that in 1995 there were less than 100 mining claims in uranium-rich areas near the Grand Canyon. By 2007, that number grew to more than 6,000 mining claims, and today there are more than 8,000.
In 2009, Salazar temporarily stopped new claims by issuing a two-year moratorium so the Department of the Interior could study the impacts of uranium mining on Grand Canyon National Park. Without today’s announcement, the clock would have run out at the end of this month. Salazar issued today an emergency withdrawal order that extends the moratorium another six months, until a final environmental impact statement can be issued. Salazar also announced that he has directed the preferred alternative in the final rule to be a full 20-year withdrawal of the threatened lands around the Grand Canyon.
Politicians had lined up on both sides of the debate. More than 60 Democrats, led by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), sent a letter asking Secretary Salazar to fully withdraw 1 million acres for 20 years in order to stop new mining claims. At the same time, Republicans Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Trent Franks (R-AZ) requested that Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) hold a hearing questioning “the Administration’s perceived environmental concerns” about uranium mining creating a “serious national security threat.”
This political divide should come as no surprise, especially when one considers that the National Mining Association donates three times more to Republicans than it does to Democrats.
However, Gosar was quick to capitalize on the Grand Canyon’s popularity to promote the oil industry agenda. “Arizona’s First Congressional District is home to countless popular vacation destinations such as the Grand Canyon National Park,” he wrote in a press release. “If gas prices continue to soar, our local communities could be hit hard by decreased tourism and fewer visitors.”
Where is that concern for the tourism impact that would be caused by countless mines popping up next to Grand Canyon National Park? What about the impact on the Colorado River that sustains the National Park and provides drinking water to 25 million Americans? The list of reasons for protecting Grand Canyon National Park is long and wide ranging.
Still, some conservative leaders feel it’s better to play up fears of government overreach than recognize that some places should be protected.