(Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles…)
Nothing spoils a good hike through the wilderness like radioactive streams. That's one of the reasons all Americans, but particularly Arizonans who benefit from the tourism magnet that is the Grand Canyon, should be thankful to the Obama administration for its decision Monday to withdraw about 1 million acres in the vicinity of the national park from new mining claims for the next 20 years.
Congressional Republicans, led by politicians such as Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake who are heavily backed by the mining industry, turned the Grand Canyon decision into an important plank of a broad anti-environmental campaign last year, throwing up numerous bills and amendments to prevent the Interior Department from withdrawing these lands from new claims. Those efforts failed to clear the Senate, however, and as a result, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's action is probably carved in bedrock. As it should be.
Despite a lot of hot air from the GOP about the economic benefits of mining, the financial impacts of Salazar's decision will be negligible. Nearly all the companies that proposed to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon are foreign-owned, and a Bureau of Land Management environmental study estimated that the land withdrawal would cost only about 465 jobs. Meanwhile, because of an anachronistic 1872 law that allows miners to extract hard-rock minerals from public lands royalty-free, there would have been little benefit for taxpayers; had new uranium claims near the Grand Canyon been allowed, they would have produced about $16.6 million in additional income, sales and other taxes, according to the BLM study. That's selling precious and irreplaceable natural resources awfully cheap.
Existing mining claims in the area will still be honored, but the new claims blocked by Salazar would have industrialized pristine hunting and recreation lands surrounding the canyon by encouraging the construction of new roads and power lines. Uranium mining poses high risks of contamination, particularly for the aquifers that feed creeks in the Grand Canyon and even the Colorado River, a key source of water for Southern California. The expected uranium rush in the area would have further threatened endangered wildlife, ruined vistas, polluted the air and soil, and harmed Arizona's multibillion-dollar tourism industry.
The public has won this round, but the fight continues. Back in 2009, Salazar said he would make reforming the aforementioned 1872 mining law, which gives mining preference over other uses of federal lands and picks taxpayers' pockets by giving away valuable public resources without compensation, a top priority. The Republican takeover of the House in 2010 killed those plans, but mining interests won't get away with robbery forever.