In a recent New York Times ad, 50 statesmen, scholars and conservation leaders are urging President Barack Obama to extend by 20 years a 1 million acre mining buffer around Grand Canyon National Park.
Signers of the “open letter format” ad include Theodore Roosevelt IV, actors Edward Norton and Robert Redford, film director Ken Burns, World Bank science adviser Thomas Lovejoy, former Clinton administration officials Bill Richardson (who also served as governor of New Mexico), John Podesta and Roger Kennedy, CEOs of outdoor businesses Patagonia, Black Diamond and Eastern Mountain Sports and historian Douglas Brinkley (biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, who helped create the National Park System).
The group — largely prominent voices in conservation — are calling on President Obama to protect the park from new uranium mining claims near its boundaries. A report released last month by the nongovernmental preservation Pew Environment Group shows that claims around Grand Canyon National Park increased 2,000 percent between 2005 and 2010 ‘” hundreds of which are controlled by foreign interests, including Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, and South Korea’s state-owned utility.
In response to the rash of new uranium claims near the Grand Canyon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a temporary halt in 2009 to claims on national forest and other public lands surrounding the park. That moratorium is slated to expire in July.
The claims around the Grand Canyon are staked under the 1872 Mining Law that still governs hardrock mining on public lands in the West. Signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, the law gives mining companies “free and open access” to nearly 350 million acres of public land. It also allows mining companies ‘” even those that are foreign-owned ‘” to take about $1 billion annually in gold and other metals from public lands without paying a royalty.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory identifies the hardrock mining industry as the nation’s top polluter, and EPA reports more than $2 billion in federal spending over the past decade on mine cleanup.
The White House is expected to make a decision on the issue this month.
Health and economic hazards abound
Officials from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority have pressed to limit new uranium mining along the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River watershed, which provides drinking water for 25 million people.
Meanwhile, visits to the Grand Canyon generate revenue of $687 million annually and contribute to the creation of more than 12,000 full-time jobs, according to a 2005 Northern Arizona University study.
“A trip to the Grand Canyon is an American birthright, and the watershed is irreplaceable to tens of millions in the Southwest,” said Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon. “The Grand Canyon ecosystem is arguably our greatest natural treasure and a tremendous economic asset for Arizona and the region. It must be protected.”
Support from Capitol Hill
Members of Congress are standing up for the ban; a letter from 63 members of the House of Representatives sent last month to Secretary Salazar read: “Mining so close to the Canyon could seriously impair the region’s ecosystems: wreaking havoc on the landscape, drying up critical seeps and springs, disturbing fish and wildlife and releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. — [U]ranium could also degrade the downstream water supply, relied on by millions of Americans.”
“This is an important opportunity for President Obama to exercise visionary leadership in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt,” said Jane Danowitz, the Pew Environment Group’s director of U.S. public lands. “At this defining moment, we urge the president to make no further delays and to stand by his administration’s initial recommendation to give this special place the full protection it deserves.”