Mining reform long overdue: Grand Canyon “timeout” is a vital intermediate step

Grand Canyon. Photo by Jason K. Bach, Flickr.

Arizona’s Grand Canyon is one of America’s most iconic landscapes. One of America’s crown jewels, the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River that rushes through it have faced many serious threats over the years. Uranium mining is one such threat; it presents grave environmental and health hazards and it imperils the safety of humans and wildlife by potentially contaminating water supplies with toxic tailings.

This risk is intolerable in such a spectacular and ecologically significant place.

Fortunately, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has taken an important first step towards protecting the Grand Canyon watershed from uranium mining by proposing a ban on new mining claims on nearly one million acres of federal lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona.

Uranium mining on public lands often fails to serve the public interest because it is currently administered under the 1872 Mining Law. Under this archaic statute, mining companies pay no royalties and public lands that are mined are subject to insufficient environmental protections.

Reform of the 1872 Mining Law is long overdue. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) have introduced legislation in the House and Senate to bring the law into the 21st century. This fall, the House may consider legislation that would change uranium mining on public lands to a leasing program, which would ensure a fair market value for use of the lands and provide funding for reclamation efforts, among other things. Additionally, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) has reintroduced legislation to permanently withdraw the lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from mining.

But until Congress can act, we need interim protection for the Grand Canyon.

Thanks to Secretary Salazar’s proposal, lands harboring potential uranium deposits around the Grand Canyon will be “segregated” — that is, placed off-limits to additional mining claims — for a period of two years while the Bureau of Land Management completes an environmental impact statement on a proposed longer term mining withdrawal of the lands.

As Teddy Roosevelt urged after his first visit to the Grand Canyon in 1903:

Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.

Check out maps and other information on the Grand Canyon proposal.

photo: Grand Canyon. Photo by Jason K. Bach, Flickr.