WASHINGTON – More than 1 million acres of government-owned land surrounding the Grand Canyon is off-limits to new mining claims until Dec. 20.
Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday announced the six-month emergency moratorium on new mining claims on federal land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.
Salazar said the extra time is needed to fully evaluate arguments in the case, but added that the department’s preferred option is a 20-year withdrawal of that land when a final decision is made later this year.
Existing approved mines can continue to operate, and existing claims won’t be affected.
The announcement was quickly attacked by mining supporters. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, whose district contains some of the land, said in a statement that the decision makes up to 375 million pounds of uranium off-limits, “putting the desires of a handful of rabid environmentalists above America’s long-term energy independence and national security.”
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates uranium deposits in the withdrawn areas represent only 12 percent of the total in northern Arizona and would meet domestic needs for six years.
Salazar — who set the tone of his address with mentions of explorer John Wesley Powell, Theodore Roosevelt and Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service — said the extension would allow the department enough time to fully assess the long-term actions it is considering. A previous ban was set to expire on July 20.
“We face a choice that could profoundly affect the Grand Canyon in ways we do not yet understand,” Salazar said.
Officials who spoke during the announcement said caution is needed because of uranium mining’s potential impact on the Colorado River and the water it supplies to millions of western Americans.
“Powell predicted more than 100 years ago that the greatest resource in the West would not be a mineral in the ground,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt.
The agency advised Salazar on the effects increased mining could have on water quality as well as the magnitude of uranium deposits in the withdrawal area.
In a written response to the announcement, the National Mining Association questioned the integrity of the regulatory process, saying the Bureau of Land Management hasn’t proved mining outside the national park would threaten resources within it.
Like Franks, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, immediately released a statement slamming Salazar’s decision. Gosar also has affected land in his district.
He called the withdrawal “arbitrary” and said it “makes it certain none of the economic potential in the area will be realized.”
But several who spoke in favor of Salazar’s decision said there’s no guarantee jobs created by allowing new mining claims would benefit unemployed Arizonans.
“Whatever jobs were created would end up in Utah,” said Richard Mayol, spokesman for the Grand Canyon Trust. “This is the Grand Canyon State, and we’re going to protect it.”
Supporters pointed to the economic importance of tourism to northern Arizona.
“Secretary Salazar has protected a national treasure, and, equally important, he’s chosen an economic engine that will last forever,” said Jim Stipe, chairman of the Arizona Council of Trout Unlimited.
Coconino County Supervisor Liz Archuleta said she was “very pleased” the land is off-limits to new mining claims while a more complete study is done.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, was recognized during the announcement for his efforts to ensure the conservation of the land near the Grand Canyon. He would like to see a permanent withdrawal of the area — something that must be approved by Congress — and has submitted a bill proposing that.
“(That land) belongs to all of us, and generations to come — they need to honor that,” said Grijalva.