While applauded by conservation groups, the secretary's action raises at least one question: To what extent should national parks be protected from development beyond their borders?
The temporary ban puts the 1 million acres off limits to new mining claims and exploration or development of existing, unpatented claims. The order complies with a June 2008 resolution by the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on Natural Resources calling for the same protections across the same area. The protections do not affect three existing mines in the area slated for reopening or the exploration of existing patented claims.
The issue of uranium mining and the Grand Canyon surfaced late in 2007 after the U.S. Forest Service decided, without holding any public hearings, to allow for exploration of the radioactive fuel within a few miles of the park. That decision was followed in 2008 by the filing of a lawsuit to halt the exploration. That lawsuit argued that the Forest Service failed to follow National Environmental Policy Act guidelines when it authorized Vane Minerals to drill test holes at up to 39 sites near the Grand Canyon.
Uranium prices have caused sharp increases in new uranium mining claims, exploration, and permitting to reopen old mines on public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, uranium development threatens to "damage wildlife habitat, industrialize iconic wildlands, and contaminate surface water and groundwater feeding regional water wells, seeps, springs and the Colorado River — prompting concerns from former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, and Kaibab Paiute tribes, Coconino County officials, and independent geologists."
“Secretary Salazar’s decision secures a much-needed, but temporary respite from thousands of new uranium claims around the Grand Canyon,” said Grand Canyon Trust spokesman Roger Clark. “For permanent protection, Congress now needs to pass the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act.”
Monday's decision by the Obama administration aligns the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management direction with the June 2008 resolution by the House Committee on Natural Resources, which directed the secretary of the interior to enact an “emergency withdrawal,” banning new claims and exploration across the 1 million acres for three years. The Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Trust, and Sierra Club sued the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management in September 2008 for authorizing uranium exploration in violation of the withdrawal. The groups are evaluating how Monday's action affects that pending litigation.
“We are pleased to see Secretary Salazar take this action to protect the lands around Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, which provides the drinking water for millions of people downstream,” said Sandy Bahr, chapter director for the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “Our waters and special places such as Grand Canyon deserve strong protections.”
The administration’s order comes as Congress considers legislative mining reforms. On Tuesday the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests And Public Lands will hear testimony on H.R.644, the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act of 2009, introduced by Representative Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz, that would permanently ban exploration and new claims on about 1 million acres of public lands bordering Grand Canyon. Last week the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources heard testimony on legislation to reform the antiquated 1872 mining law. The Environmental Protection Agency in that hearing noted that hard-rock mining has impacted 40 percent of all Western watersheds and generates 28 percent of the toxic pollution in the United States.
“Grand Canyon’s uranium problem exemplifies the need for national mining law reform,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “America deserves a mining law that holds our parks, watersheds and wildlife above — rather than hostage to — mining industry profits.”
State air and water permitting has begun to open three existing mines in the area covered by Monday's order but will not be limited by it. All three mines are owned by Denison Mines, a Canadian concern with Korean ties. Federal environmental approvals for all three mines are outdated and were completed in the 1980s. The Havasupai tribe will host a rally on July 25th and 26th near Grand Canyon’s south rim in protest of one of those mines, the Canyon mine, located on the Kaibab National Forest and traditional tribal lands.