Prominent Americans Urge President Obama to Protect Grand Canyon Now

Prominent Americans Urge President Obama to Protect Grand Canyon Now

An ad this week in the New York Times (PDF) features an open letter from 50 statesmen, scholars and conservation leaders urging a 20-year extension of a one-million-acre mining buffer around Grand Canyon National Park. The list of signers includes Theodore Roosevelt IV, actors Edward Norton and Robert Redford, film director Ken Burns, World Bank science adviser Thomas Lovejoy, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—all calling on President Obama to protect the park from new uranium mining claims near its boundaries. The administration is expected to make a decision on the issue this month.

In response to a rash of new uranium claims near the Grand Canyon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a temporary halt in 2009 to claims on national forest and other public lands surrounding the park. That moratorium is slated to expire in July. The administration has sought comment on four alternatives under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The proposals range from extending the one-million-acre moratorium for 20 years, to lifting the ban on the entire area. Delaying a decision would endanger the process. The mining industry is on record opposing any long-term effort to limit uranium development near the park.

Additional signers of the letter include former Clinton administration officials Bill Richardson (who also served as governor of New Mexico), John Podesta and Roger Kennedy; Shari Buck, chair of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and mayor of North Las Vegas, Nev.; Flagstaff, Ariz., Mayor Sara Presler; CEOs of outdoor businesses Patagonia, Black Diamond and Eastern Mountain Sports; historian Douglas Brinkley, a biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, who helped create the National Park System; conservationists from the entertainment world, including Amy Redford and Ty Burrell; and heads of major environmental organizations.

“A trip to the Grand Canyon is an American birthright, and the watershed is irreplaceable to tens of millions in the Southwest,” said Mayor Gordon. “The Grand Canyon ecosystem is arguably our greatest natural treasure and a tremendous economic asset for Arizona and the region. It must be protected.”

report released last month by the Pew Environment Group used Bureau of Land Management data to show that claims around Grand Canyon National Park increased 2,000 percent between 2005 and 2010. Hundreds of claims are controlled by foreign interests, including Rosatom, Russia's state atomic energy corporation, and South Korea's state-owned utility.

Officials from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority have pressed to limit new uranium mining along the Grand Canyon's Colorado River watershed, which provides drinking water for 25 million people. Visits to the Grand Canyon generate revenue of $687 million annually and contribute to the creation of more than 12,000 full-time jobs, according to a 2005 Northern Arizona University study (PDF).

Members of Congress are standing up for the ban as well. A letter from 63 members of the House of Representatives (PDF) sent last month to Secretary Salazar said, “Mining so close to the Canyon could seriously impair the region's ecosystems: wreaking havoc on the landscape, drying up critical seeps and springs, disturbing fish and wildlife and releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. … [U]ranium could also degrade the downstream water supply, relied on by millions of Americans.”

The claims around the Grand Canyon are staked under the 1872 Mining Law that still governs hardrock mining on public lands in the West. Signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, the law gives mining companies “free and open access” to nearly 350 million acres of public land. It also allows mining companies—even those that are foreign-owned—to take about $1 billion annually in gold and other metals from public lands without paying a royalty, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory identifies the hardrock mining industry as the nation's top polluter, and EPA reports more than $2 billion in federal spending over the past decade on mine cleanup.

“This is an important opportunity for President Obama to exercise visionary leadership in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt,” said Jane Danowitz, the Pew Environment Group's director of U.S. public lands. “At this defining moment, we urge the president to make no further delays and to stand by his administration's initial recommendation to give this special place the full protection it deserves.”