Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is supposed to be managing America’s public lands for the good of taxpayers and generations to come, but instead he is letting industry dictate environmental policies, opening up some of our wildest places to development over the objection of the American people. And yet the industry and some Members of Congress want Zinke to go even further – allowing mining in or around several of America’s most treasured landscapes, including the Grand Canyon.
On May 8, 2018, Secretary Zinke released six Draft Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) upending the sage-grouse conservation plans that protect the sage grouse habitat and an ecosystem of 350 species. The Draft EISs follow on the October 2017 removal of Obama-era proposed mining restrictions by removing the associated habitat protections that also applied to those lands. On that same day, the administration quietly reinstated two expired leases for sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of Boundary Waters Wilderness area, paving the way for contamination of the area’s pristine lakes and rivers.
The administration also received a letter from members of the congressional Western Caucus, calling for more aggressive actions across a range of mineral withdrawals and segregations in the works or completed during the Obama administration. Notably, only 23 of 76 members of the Western Caucus signed the letter. This wish list for the Western Caucus – whose political futures are deeply connected to the mining industry – reads like a check list for Secretary Zinke’s latest actions and includes the sage-grouse conservation plans, Boundary Waters, the California Desert, and Grand Canyon.
And now the Grand Canyon…seriously?
Adjacent to the Grand Canyon, one of America’s most beloved national parks hosting millions of visitors from around the world each year, lies one of the wildest and most ecologically significant regions in the West. Stretching across thousands of acres of the Colorado Plateau, the greater Grand Canyon watershed was protected in 2012, when the Obama administration issued an Executive Order placing a moratorium on uranium mining in the area. This allowed time to study the possible impacts of mining on the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon ecosystem, and the health of local communities. Uranium mining in this sensitive and stunningly beautiful area has the potential to destroy crucial wildlife habitat, damage northern Arizona’s tourism-based economy and put the health of the Colorado River and those that depend upon it at risk.
Unfortunately, the Department of the Interior’s 2019 fiscal year budget proposes to completely gut the division of the U.S. Geological Survey that has been conducting an ongoing study to determine whether a one-million-acre area surrounding the Grand Canyon needs protection from new uranium mining claims.
While the 2012 moratorium was put in place in order to gain greater understanding and avoid possibly catastrophic effects on the environment, the Western Caucus appears to prefer blind support for special interests in the mining industry. Mining companies can be expected to downplay risk in the pursuit of profit; we should be able to expect more from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the elected officials of the Western Caucus.