This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
For years after the Grand Canyon's grandeur was recognized by the federal government as worth preserving, opportunists nevertheless tried to ignore the protections set up for this unique national treasure in their quest to make money.
The protections for the Grand Canyon were expanded by its designation as a national park, but there remain people who believe the underground riches near the park are more important than the unparalleled scenic vistas, wildlife and watershed connected with Grand Canyon. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has rightly moved to further protect the canyon, as Teddy Roosevelt did many years ago, by extending a temporary ban on new uranium mining claims.
The six-month ban on new mines on about 1 million acres in the Grand Canyon watershed could, and should, be extended for 20 years, preventing about 3,000 claims from being validated by the Bureau of Land Management. Unfortunately, existing mines in what is called the Arizona Strip will not be affected.
Even through the narrow lens of local economic development, the focus on short-term financial gain based on the boom-and-bust pattern of mining uranium, a finite resource, at the expense of long-term, sustainable revenue from tourist dollars is cockeyed.
As Arizona state Rep. Tom Chabin wrote in February, uranium mining in many cases has had "devastating effects on the land, water and people" of his state. In Utah, taxpayers have footed a $1 billion price tag to clean up uranium mill tailings next to the Colorado River near Moab, and the pile is far from gone. The latest estimate for completion is 2019.
The negative impact of uranium mining on the West's dwindling ground water is widespread. Uranium, unlike coal or other minerals, is toxic, and once the toxicity spreads into aquifers, cleanup takes many years, if it is even possible.
Uranium mining has poisoned the drinking water of Navajos living on reservations in the Grand Canyon area. And the cleanup cost has, as usual, fallen to taxpayers.
The withdrawal of the full 1 million acres for 20 years will be identified as the department's preferred alternative, according to Salazar, pending an environmental review this fall. The review will show the potential damage to the environment of future uranium mining and the extent of harm already inflicted.
Despite protests from short-sighted Utah and Arizona officials, a long-term ban is essential to protecting this valuable natural asset for all Americans.