WASHINGTON — In a controversial decision, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on Monday made official a 20-year ban on uranium and other hard-rock mining claims on more than 1 million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon.
Salazar's decision to withdraw from areas around the Grand Canyon came after two years of evaluation by the Bureau of Land Management, extending an expiring 2009 interim ban on new sites.
The ban will allow more than 3,000 existing mines and claims made before 2009 to continue, but it could prevent up to 30 new mines from being established, according to an estimate from the environmental impact statement that the Bureau of Land Management released late in October.
"A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape," said Salazar, who announced the decision Monday at the National Geographic Museum. "People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon, numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use."
Under the nation's 139-year-old mining law, companies have automatic access to most public land in the West and are allowed to mine for uranium, gold and other minerals without paying royalties.
Bob Abbey, the director of the Bureau of Land Management, said Monday that the two-decade ban on new claims in the protected area would give the department the chance to monitor the impacts of existing mining operations.
Environmental groups praised the decision. But not everyone favored the ban, particularly members of the energy industry and some Republican lawmakers.
"It is deeply unfortunate that certain environmental groups have chosen to break faith with a 30-year-old compromise with environmentalists that successfully balanced conservation with mining and other commercial activities," GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona said in a news release. "The administration has shown that it is either careless enough to break this historic agreement or foolish enough to fall for these groups' alarmist arguments."
In a statement, Hal Quinn, the president and chief executive officer of the National Mining Association, cited the decision as ignorant of "the obvious need for high-wage employment and energy security," saying it could be highly detrimental to the community.
But Salazar said the ban was a much-needed step to curb the environmental impact of the energy industry.
"Every generation of Americans has moments when we must choose between the pressures of the now, and the protection of the timeless," Salazar said.
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