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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. • A group of Republican lawmakers is renewing an effort to open up 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon to new mining claims.
Legislation announced Wednesday would prevent the Interior Department from extending a temporary ban on the filing of new mining claims that expires in December. The group said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's intention to set aside the land for 20 years would eliminate hundreds of potential jobs, create a de-facto wilderness area and unravel decades of responsible resource development.
"At a time when we are desperate for jobs and economic growth, this administration continues to do everything in its power to implement the job-killing policies of fringe environmental groups," said Arizona Rep. David Schweikert. "This withdrawal is not so much a protection of the Grand Canyon but a governmental land grab of economically fertile mining land."
Salazar enacted a two-year ban in July 2009 but extended it by six months earlier this year to give the U.S. Bureau of Land Management more time to study the economic and environmental effects of mining. Interior officials said Wednesday that any claims about jobs losses are false.
Should any of the land be withdrawn, mining companies would need to prove they have valid existing rights to those claims before mining could occur. According to the BLM's draft environmental study, 11 mines could open over the next 20 years under Salazar's proposal. Without a withdrawal, up to 30 mines could be developed. The difference in the number of jobs under the two scenarios would be 71, the BLM said.
Other proposals include withdrawing either 300,000 or 650,000 acres from any new claims. The final study is due out later this month.
"Interior is considering many factors in evaluating the issue, including the economic benefits of Grand Canyon National Park and the potential impacts on the park of expanding mining nearby," said Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher.
Efforts in Congress to prohibit or allow mining on the same acreage have made little headway. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., added a rider to an Interior appropriations bill earlier this year to end the ban, and Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., introduced legislation last year to keep Interior from withdrawing any land. The two were joined by the rest of Arizona's Republican delegation, and lawmakers from other Western states in supporting the latest effort.
In a letter to Salazar, the lawmakers said they share in a desire to protect the Grand Canyon from adverse environmental impacts but don't believe shutting out mining companies is the answer, particularly in an area known for high-grade uranium ore. They said a federal law that designated wilderness areas near the Grand Canyon provides a good balance for mining and resource protection.
McCain said a full withdrawal of the 1 million acres of federal land "will raise significant questions for future wilderness bills if agreements to accommodate responsible land uses are neither genuine nor enduring."
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., has been on the opposite side of the lawmakers, advocating for a permanent withdrawal of the land from new mining claims. A bill he sponsored to do just that routinely has stalled.
"Selling this as a jobs bill for the future and brushing the environmental damage under the rug isn't going to fly with voters," he said of the Republicans' move. "The public overwhelmingly supported Secretary Salazar's announcement during the comment period, and the public supports it today. This bill is a waste of taxpayers' time, and I join them in looking forward to its defeat."