WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced Monday that more than one million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon will be withdrawn from additional uranium and other hardrock mining for the next 20 years.
He said this policy will permit adequate time for monitoring while allowing currently approved mining operations to continue as well as new operations on valid existing mining claims.
The withdrawn area includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands; and 23,993 acres of split estate -- where surface lands are held by other owners while subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government.
The affected lands, all in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon National Park, are located in Mohave and Coconino Counties of Northern Arizona.
"A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape," Salazar said. "People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use.
"We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations."
The Interior Department indicated that the authority to take this action is authorized by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
A Record of Decision was signed by Salazar Monday during a ceremony held at the National Geographic Museum in Washington.
According to the announcement, the withdrawal of the specified lands does not prohibit previously approved uranium mining, new projects that could be approved on claims and sites with valid existing rights. About 3,200 mining claims are currently located in the withdrawal area.
"The withdrawal maintains the pace of hardrock mining, particularly uranium, near the Grand Canyon," Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said, "but also gives the Department a chance to monitor the impacts associated with uranium mining in this area.
"It preserves the ability of future decision-makers to make thoughtful decisions about managing this area of national environmental and cultural significance based on the best information available."
The BLM projects that up to 11 uranium mines -- including four that are currently approved -- could still be developed during the withdrawal period. This is based on valid pre-existing rights, which means the jobs supported by mining in the area would increase or remain flat as compared to the current level, according to the BLM's analysis.
By comparison, during the 1980s, nine uranium mines were developed on these lands and five were mined out.
The Environmental Impact Statement estimated that without the withdrawal, there would be 30 uranium mines in the area over the next 20 years, including the four that are currently approved, with as many as six operating at one time.
"The decision made today by the Secretary will help ensure continued protection of the Grand Canyon watershed and World Heritage designated Grand Canyon National Park," National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said. "As stewards of our national parks, it is incumbent on all of us to continue to preserve our treasured landscapes, today and for future generations."
This week's decision is the culmination of more than two years of evaluation during which the BLM analyzed the proposed withdrawal in an EIS prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
Numerous cooperating agencies, tribes, counties and stakeholders were fully engaged in this process, which included an extensive public involvement period which generated more than 350,000 comments, including input from more than 90 countries.
Substantive comments, including those on the economic impact discussion, were addressed in the Final EIS, released on Oct. 27, 2011 for a final 30-day review period.
Kenneth Green is a resident scholar for Energy and the Environment at the American Enterprise Institute. He has a doctorate in Environmental Science and Engineering from UCLA and has worked on environmental issues since 1992. He was somewhat critical of the administration's action.
"This is certainly in line with the other activities the administration has taken in this area," Green said. "They are doing everything they can to prevent people from extracting fuels from the environment. Their default position is the exact opposite of what it used to be in America. They consider mining efforts inherently bad.
"This is a reversal of the historical principles in America towards the environment. It used to be use as much as you can safely. Now it is use as little as you possibly can."