Don Bills / USGS
Tribes and environmentalists oppose allowing new uranium mines like this one, the Kanab North mine, which is located just north of Grand Canyon National Park. It and other mines with existing claims are not affected by the Interior Department's decision.
The Obama administration on Monday announced a 20-year ban on new mining on federal lands near Grand Canyon National Park, saying the move would allow current mining to continue while officials monitor potential impacts.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made the announcement after an area covering 1 million acres had been opened up under the Bush administration, mostly for uranium mining.
"The withdrawal maintains the pace of hardrock mining, particularly uranium, near the Grand Canyon," Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said in a statement, "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."
Republican lawmakers from Arizona had blasted temporary bans imposed by Salazar in 2009 and again last year., arguing that hundreds of jobs will be lost. They are also backing legislation to block Salazar's order.
The mining industry said the decision was driven by politics, not science. "The administration’s announcement is not supported by the findings of its own impact analysis, which provided no evidence to justify a massive withdrawal of land," National Mining Association President Hall Quinn said in a statement.
Environmental groups praised the move, noting that the Colorado River, which runs through the Grand Canyon, is the source of drinking water for 26 million Americans.
"Secretary Salazar has defended the Southwest's right to plentiful, clean water and America's dedication to one of our most precious landscapes," said Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group.
"Despite significant pressure from the mining industry, the president and Secretary Salazar did not back down," added Jane Danowitz, U.S. public lands director for the Pew Environment Group.
Salazar has said that uranium, which is used in nuclear power reactors, remains an important part of a comprehensive energy strategy. But he said the Grand Canyon is a national treasure that must be protected.
The Grand Canyon attracts more than 4 million visitors a year and generates an estimated $3.5 billion in economic activity, Salazar said. Millions of Americans living in cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles rely on the Colorado River for clean drinking water.
The Interior Department emphasized that the ban would not affect 3,200 mining claims already staked in the area near the Grand Canyon.
Supporters of the ban say any increase in mining jobs is not worth risks to the Colorado River, lands considered sacred by American Indian tribes or wildlife habitat. A mining mishap also could be disastrous for tourism in one of the nation's most-visited parks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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