Grand Canyon uranium ban draws cheer, jeers
Utah conservationists praised Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision Monday to bar new uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, while lawmakers and industry officials called it a blow to energy independence.
Salazar announced that his department would withdraw 1 million acres of public lands around the national park from consideration for new mining claims for 20 years. Existing operations and prior valid claims are not affected.
The order covers 356,000 acres of the Kaibab National Forest and 627,000 acres under the Bureau of Land Management, plus some other lands to which the federal government holds only subsurface mineral rights.
The announcement drew immediate kudos from regional advocates who view the northern Arizona landmark as indispensable and worthy of an industrial buffer.
"It is one of the greatest of the greatest places," say Jay Banta, a Torrey resident who has hunted mule deer and turkeys on the forests surrounding the park, and a board member for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "I don't think we can be too judicious in how we protect it.
"I appreciate that the secretary had the vision to preserve this," the Utahn added. "Who knows how long it will last? But at least in my time and in my children's time there will still be opportunities to go there and get away from the road and have those cherished experiences."
Others hailed the decision as vital protection for 25 million Southwesterners who drink from the Colorado River and thousands more who rely on tourism jobs. Headwaters Economics estimated that 2009 canyon visitation supported 6,000 jobs with $400 million in spending.
"I support the administration's decision to follow the example of President Theodore Roosevelt, who established what is now Grand Canyon National Park and urged Americans to keep this American treasure for their children and their children's children," said Philip Carlson, a Salt Lake City resident and member of Republicans for Environmental Protection.
Utahns in Congress, though, said the move continues the Obama administration's failure to balance land uses in the West.
"It is unconscionable that the administration has yet again caved to political pressure from radical special interest groups rather than standing up for the American people," Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said in a prepared statement.
The move puts off limits 40 percent of the nation's uranium resources, he said, quoting an American Clean Energy Resources Trust report warning it could cost 1,000 jobs.
"Banning access to the most uranium-rich land in the United States will be overwhelmingly detrimental to both jobs in Utah and Arizona and our nation's domestic energy security."
Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, also recoiled at the decision.
"Once again, Secretary Salazar has mandated an all-or-nothing approach," Matheson said, "handed down in a way that interferes with a stakeholder-driven process."
The land in question contains up to 375 million pounds of uranium seven times the nation's current demand and there's "no scientifically verified threat to the Grand Canyon's environment" from mining it, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Salazar called the decision "a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations," while BLM Director Bob Abbey said it gives his agency a chance to monitor ongoing uranium mining and make intelligent decisions about more in the future.
The BLM projects that up to 11 new uranium mines could still be developed under unaffected claims. That includes four that are already approved.