Originally Published: January 8, 2012 9:56 p.m.
WASHINGTON - The Interior Department is moving forward with a plan to ban new mining claims on 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon, even as congressional Republicans try to block efforts to limit mining operations in an area known for high-grade uranium ore.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to finalize a 20-year ban on new mining claims on public land surrounding the Grand Canyon at an event today in Washington.
Salazar twice imposed temporary bans as officials studied the environmental and economic effects of a longer-term ban.
Conservation groups hailed the 20-year ban, first announced in October, as a crucial protection for an American icon. The mining industry and some Republican members of Congress called the ban detrimental to Arizona's economy and the nation's energy independence.
Interior Department officials declined to comment, but said Salazar is expected to make an announcement regarding conservation of the Grand Canyon at an event at the National Geographic Museum.
Bob Abbey, director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, called the Grand Canyon a national treasure that attracts visitors from around the world.
"Uranium remains an important part of our nation's comprehensive energy resources, but it is appropriate to pause, identify what the predicted level of mining and its impacts on the Grand Canyon would be, and decide what level of risk is acceptable to take with this national treasure," Abbey said when the mining ban was proposed in October.
Republican members of Arizona's congressional delegation have lambasted temporary bans imposed by Salazar in 2009 and again last year. They say a permanent ban on the filing of new mining claims would eliminate hundreds of jobs and unravel decades of responsible resource development. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and other GOP lawmakers are backing legislation to prevent Salazar from moving forward with the 20-year ban.
Environmental groups call the ban a long-awaited but decisive victory, noting that the Colorado River, which runs through the Grand Canyon, is the source of drinking water for 26 million Americans.
"Secretary Salazar has defended the Southwest's right to plentiful, clean water and America's dedication to one of our most precious landscapes," said Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Horwitt and others said the ban would not affect more than 3,000 mining claims already staked in the area near the Grand Canyon.
The Bush administration had opened up the land to new mining claims. Salazar reversed the Bush policy in 2009 and called for a two-year moratorium on new mining claims around the canyon. He followed up with a six-month extension last year.
Supporters of the ban say any increase in mining jobs is not worth risks to the Colorado River, lands considered sacred by American Indian tribes or wildlife habitat. A mining mishap also could be disastrous for tourism in one of the nation's most-visited parks.