Environmentalists hail Grand Canyon ruling

In a move hailed as a major victory by environmentalists, the Obama administration on Monday set in motion a plan to ban uranium mining on more than one million acres around the Grand Canyon in Arizona for 20 years.

At a press conference held on the canyon rim, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar invoked the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, speaking from the same spot, about the majesty of the region. "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

He added, "Like our ancestors, we do not know how future Americans will enjoy, experience, and benefit from this place. And that's one of the many reasons why wisdom, caution, and science should guide our protection of the Grand Canyon."

The move allows the Obama administration to maintain a tricky balance between pushing a conservation agenda and resisting slams from Republicans and the oil, gas, and mining industries, who say restricting public lands from energy exploration contributes to higher fuel prices and greater dependence on foreign sources of energy.

But this month, the administration came under fire from its allies in the environmental community when it reversed a plan to protect wilderness areas from oil and gas drilling.

The plan gives a major victory to conservationists without angering the nation's most politically powerful energy extractors, oil and gas drillers. Environmentalists, led by the Pew Environment Group, The Wilderness Society, the mayors of Phoenix and Los Angeles, and tribal groups, have aggressively lobbied the administration to halt new uranium mining out of concern that it could damage drinking water and park water quality.

"It's a big deal. There's been a lot of pressure for this," said Bill Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society. "It protects the water source and the integrity of the Grand Canyon -- and [President Obama will] get a lot of praise from the environmental community."

The plan follows a two-year moratorium on uranium mining around the Grand Canyon that expires next month. It was put in place in part because mining claims surrounding the park were skyrocketing. A report released last month by Pew used Bureau of Land Management data to show that uranium claims around Grand Canyon National Park increased 2,000 percent between 2005 and 2010.

Under the plan, 1 million acres of land in and around the Grand Canyon will be placed under a six-month emergency withdrawal from any future mining claims.

In February, the Interior Department released a draft Environmental Impact Statement assessing the potential impacts of increasing regional uranium mining. The draft recommends a range of options-including a 20-year ban on new uranium mining. Salazar said on Monday that he will issue a final statement this year recommending that the administration act on the 20-year ban.

Not surpisingly, mining groups slammed the move. "Today's announcement of a predetermined action -- a 20-year moratorium on hard-rock mining activity on more than a million acres of federal land in Arizona -- is scientifically unsupportable and sets a troublesome precedent as we struggle to create jobs and meet more of our future energy needs with domestic fuels," said Katie Sweeney, general counsel with the National Mining Association.

But the protest over blocking new uranium mining, especially when pitted against the protection of a landmark as iconic as the Grand Canyon, is unlikely to have the same political traction as protests over blocking new oil and gas drilling.

It's true that the United States relies on imports to provide the majority of uranium needed to power America's nuclear fleet, which produces about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. But unlike oil, global supplies of uranium are relatively healthy -- and the United States imports most of its uranium from allies, such as Canada.

The pressure to increase domestic uranium mining has diminished following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown in Japan, which has dimmed enthusiasm for a new nuclear power plants in this country. Also dimming demand for new nuclear power is the fact that Congress is unlikely in the near future to enact legislation to tackle climate change, which, by pricing carbon emissions, would have boosted demand for low-carbon sources of electricity like nuclear power.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec