Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has extended a moratorium on new uranium mining claims on 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park so federal land managers can finish a study of potential impacts from the mining and impacts from denying new mining claims.
The move to temporarily withdraw the acreage from hard-rock mining claims extends a decision the secretary made back in July 2009 to place a moratorium on new mining claims on the landscape until threats to the canyon could be analyzed. About the same time U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz, introduced the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act of 2009, which would have made the moratorium permanent.
The Interior secretary's previous moratorium runs out July 20. The latest extension comes as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management continues to study whether to permanently remove the lands from mining for a 20-year period. Existing claims are not affected by today's announcement.
The preferred alternative that will be included in the final Environmental Impact Statement is the "full proposed withdrawal of approximately 1 million acres of BLM and Forest Service lands located near the national park from mining claim location and entry under the 1872 Mining Law for 20 years, subject to valid exiting rights," according to an Interior Department release.
The EIS is expected to be completed in this fall.
According to an Interior Department release, the lands in question contain an array of natural, cultural, and water resources.
These lands are within portions of the Grand Canyon watershed next to Grand Canyon National Park and contain significant environmental and cultural resources as well as known uranium deposits. The Grand Canyon National Park is an iconic American landscape and World Heritage Site and draws 4.4 million visitors each year, is home to numerous rare, endemic and specially protected plant and animal species and contains vast archeological resources and sites of spiritual and cultural importance to American Indians. The Colorado River and its tributaries that flow through the watersheds of Grand Canyon National Park supply water to agricultural, industrial, and municipal users, including the cities of Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
"In this moment, we face a choice that could profoundly affect the Grand Canyon in ways we do not yet understand," Secretary Salazar said during an appearance in the park today. "Some of the lands near the Grand Canyon contain uranium resources that have helped meet our energy needs. Over the past 20 years, eight uranium mines have operated in the area and one study has shown that a possible additional eight to eleven mines might be developed in the area.
"The question for us, though, is not whether to stop cautious and moderate uranium development, but whether to allow further expansion of uranium mining in the area."
Secretary Salazar fully expects to be criticized for the withdrawal.
"I know some critics will falsely claim that with a full 1-million acre withdrawal from new hard-rock mining claims, we would somehow be denying all access to uranium resources. That, of course, is not true," he said. "Uranium, like oil and gas, solar, wind, geothermal, and other sources, remains a vital component of a responsible and comprehensive energy strategy. We will continue to develop uranium in northern Arizona, Wyoming and other places across the country.
"It is worth stating again that we believe there are likely a number of valid existing rights in the proposed withdrawal area even if the preferred alternative is ultimately selected as the final decision. We expect continued development of those claims and the establishment of new mines over the next twenty years.
"In fact, cautious development with strong oversight could help us answer critical questions about water quality and environmental impacts of uranium mining in the area. This science, derived from experience, would help others decide what actions are necessary to protect the Grand Canyon."
Applauding the secretary's announcement was Jim Stipe, chairman of Arizona Trout Unlimited.
"The secretary's announcement today to protect the Grand Canyon's water and wildlife habitat from impacts caused by uranium mining is welcome news to hunters and anglers here in Arizona, and across the country," Mr. Stipe said in a release. "The economic engine of hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation will continue thanks to Secretary Salazar's common-sense policy to permit new uranium mining elsewhere. Hunting on the Kaibab and fishing at Lee's Ferry and around the Grand Canyon will continue to be a rewarding experience. Now, we'll only have our own skills to blame for not catching a big one."
Also endorsing the secretary's action was David Nimkim, Southwest Region director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“This announcement is wonderful news for the millions of people who live near and visit the Grand Canyon each year, as well as the tens of millions more across our nation who believe the integrity and natural state of this awe-inspiring location should not be compromised," said Mr. Nimkin. "By protecting one million acres of federal lands around the Grand Canyon from uranium mining for the next 20 years, Secretary Salazar is making sure future generations will be able to enjoy a Grand Canyon unmarred from this development and has thus earned their thanks for the protection of its majesty and the preservation of the fragile ecology of the Colorado River."