Grand Canyon (A larger version can be found here.)
Two years ago, faced with the prospect that a growing global market for uranium was spurring the staking of thousands of claims in lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon, the Obama administration imposed a two-year moratorium while the issue was studied. The moratorium expires next month and eco-activists are urging that it be extended on a million acres for another 20 years.
If the temporary ban is lifted, those thousands of mining claims—many of them held by foreign corporations—could be activated. And that, foes say, could ultimately cause harm to wildlife habitat, taint drinking water and spoil the beauty of the magnificent region.
Some activists, like Bobby McEnaney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, have argued that extending the moratorium would help the administration redeem itself in the eyes of environmentalists disappointed with what they view as President Obama's failure to vigorously protect wildlife, wild lands and ocean coasts from attacks by energy interests and their elected Republican mouthpieces. McEnaney takes note of a Wednesday speech by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt that challenged the President to meet head-on the GOP's extremist assault on the environment, particularly when it comes to public lands.
Extending the mining moratorium in lands around the Grand Canyon offers a perfect opportunity for holding the line.
On May 4, 63 Congresspeople signed a letter to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar asking that the 20-year moratorium be extended to protect the Grand Canyon from a "toxic threat":
Mining so close to the Canyon could seriously impair the region's ecosystems: wracking havoc on the landscape, drying up critical seeps and springs, disturbing fish and wildlife, and releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. With mining claims positioned so close to the Canyon and the Colorado River, a range of contaminants from heavy metals to uranium could also degrade the downstream water supply, impacting a water supply relied on by millions of Americans. Not to mention the fact that uranium mining produces permanent radioactive waste, an environmental toxin which must [be] disposed of in an urgent, safe manner.
An ad hoc coalition put together by the Pew Environment Group purchased a moratorium-promoting advertisement in The New York Times. It takes the form of an open letter to President Obama and is signed by the heads of several environmental advocacy organizations, the National Congress of American Indians, the chairpersons of two Indian tribes, the mayors of Los Angeles, Phoenix and Flagstaff, a former secretary of the Department of Energy, a former director of the National Park Service and a former director of the Bureau of Land Management, and the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, who created the Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. It became a National Park in 1919.
In 1903, on his first of many visits to the Grand Canyon, President Roosevelt gave a much-quoted speech at the Bright Angel Hotel on May 6:
Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.
We have gotten past the stage, my fellow-citizens, when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of our country as something to be skinned for two or three years for the use of the present generation, whether it is the forest, the water, the scenery. Whatever it is, handle it so that your children's children will get the benefit of it.
Republicans of Roosevelt's caliber are in rather short supply these days. It seems that all but a handful would transfer the rights to every inch of public land in the nation to private hands if they could figure out how. There is simply no bargaining with them. Fortunately, President Obama doesn't have to when it comes to the mining claims in question. He can just put them on the shelf until 2031. And he should.