With little fanfare, the Obama administration recently took an action that could be one of its most enduring accomplishments. It issued a long-term ban on new uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, arguably America’s most famous national park, which is visited by roughly 5 million people each year.
Tell most Americans that uranium mining is allowed at the doorstep of Grand Canyon National Park, and it’s a good bet they would stare back at you in disbelief. Yet several years ago, an analysis of federal data by the Pew Environment Group found more than 8,000 mining claims around the borders of this American icon, most of which were staked during the previous five years. Hundreds of these claims were controlled by foreign interests, including Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, and Denison Mines Corp., a Canadian company in which South Korea’s state-owned utility is the largest shareholder.
With uranium claims proliferating at the Grand Canyon’s doorstep, the U.S. Department of the Interior used its authority under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to issue a temporary ban on new claimstaking. This action covered more than 1 million acres of national forest and other public land around the park, while the department studied mining’s impact on the region’s environment and economy.
Mining companies and their allies in Congress fought back, attempting to pass legislation to prevent the administration from protecting this national treasure In the end, the administration sided with respected scientists, conservation and business leaders, and water officials in Arizona, Nevada and California to put the mining moratorium in place for all 1 million acres and for 20 years – the longest allowed under law.
It’s not only the multitude of visitors to the Grand Canyon who will benefit. The tourism industry reports that visits to the Grand Canyon generate revenue of $687 million annually for the local economy. Travel to the park also means job creation – more than 12,000 full-time positions – according to a 2005 Northern Arizona University study (PDF).
Furthermore, the 25 million people as far away as Las Vegas and Los Angeles, whose drinking water comes from the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River, benefit as well. Mining continues to be the top producer of toxic chemicals, according to Environmental Protection Agency figures released in early January, emitting more contaminants each year than any other industry.
The ban on expanded uranium mining will go a long way toward ensuring that water quality for potentially affected communities won’t be compromised.
Although the Grand Canyon was given a reprieve, other treasured landscapes remain at risk. That’s because mining for uranium, gold and other hardrock minerals is governed by a law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 to encourage development of the frontier. Designed in an era of pickaxes and pack mules, the 19th-century statute allows the handful of global corporations that dominate modern mining basically free and unfettered access to hundreds of millions of acres of public land in the West. This includes areas in proximity to national parks and monuments, as well as valuable habitat in national forests.
The environment is not the only casualty. American taxpayers lose because the law does not require companies — including those that are foreign-owned — to pay for metals mined on federal land. In contrast, the oil, gas and coal industries have paid royalties for decades. As a result, the Congressional Research Service estimates (PDF) that more than $2.4 billion in gold, uranium and other precious metals is taken each year without taxpayer compensation.
In recent months, President Obama has spoken publicly about his admiration for Theodore Roosevelt. The decision to put the Grand Canyon off-limits to new uranium mining is a good start, but the Obama administration can do more to emulate Roosevelt’s philosophy of putting the public’s interest ahead of special interests. It can work with Congress to modernize this woefully outdated law so that American taxpayers and the special places they share are protected.