Feds favor mining ban near canyon

Supervisor says decision by Salazar a 'foregone conclusion'

BUTCH MERIWEATHER/Courtesy<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Buster Johnson

BUTCH MERIWEATHER/Courtesy<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Buster Johnson

KINGMAN - Both the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management favor banning new mining claims for the next 20 years in the area surrounding the Grand Canyon National Park.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Buster Johnson is among those who are not at all surprised.

The federal government published an environmental impact statement on the possible effects on banning all new mining claims Thursday. Other options including taking no action, or withdrawing either 300,000 or 650,000 acres from new mining claims.

Publication of the document in the National Register triggers a 30-day public comment period, after which the U.S. Interior Department will make a decision on the matter.

Several Arizona congressmen, legislators state and local officials, including Johnson, have opposed the ban, saying it will hurt the state and local economies.

"I think this was a foregone conclusion," Johnson said. He and other members of coalition of Arizona and Utah local government officials will attend a meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives National Resources Committee on Thursday to voice their concerns and support a bill that would state that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar does not have the authority to remove the land without approval from Congress.

"I know what they're trying to do. They're trying to blame the current mining companies for the mistakes from the past," Johnson said. "There's no doubt that the tribes and other people suffered under the old rules, but now we have all these protections in place."

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar closed the area to new mining claims in 2009 to study the issue. He extended the ban another six months in June so the department could finish the study.

About one-half to two-thirds of the acreage is in the northern half of Mohave County, the Arizona Strip. That area is well known for its rich deposits of uranium. Mining in those areas could bring hundreds of jobs to Arizona and Utah, according to officials.

On Oct. 13, Rep. Trent Franks introduced House Resolution 3155, the Northern Arizona Mining Continuity Act of 2011, in the U.S. House of Representatives. This bill would prohibit the U.S. Interior Department from withdrawing the land.

Franks' bill challenges a bill introduced by Rep. Paul Grijalva (D-Tucson) in March. Grijalva's bill, HR 855, the Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act, would withdraw the land "from location, entry, and patent under the mining laws, and for other purposes."

According to HR 855, existing claims could still be mined, but if the rights to those are relinquished or acquired by the U.S. government, the property would be withdrawn from mining.

Franks' bill also accuses the Interior Department of ignoring the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. The act states that any public land in the Arizona Strip area that is not part of a national park or monument is open to mining, grazing and other uses.

If the bill fails, the coalition of Utah and Arizona counties supporting it will file a rebuttal and look at the possibility of a lawsuit, Johnson said.

Opponents also claim that only Congress can authorize the withdrawal of public land from mining use, but they are concerned that the Obama Administration may be trying to get the area designated as wildlands, which would allow the administration to circumvent Congress using the Antiquities Act and declare the land a national monument. President Bill Clinton employed a similar technique in 2000 when he created Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument.

The Interior Department and proponents of the ban say any claims about job losses are false. Any company that already has an existing mining claim in the area will be able to mine. The department would only close the land to new claims-and new jobs.

According to a BLM estimate, if the ban is put in place, 11 mines could operate over the next 20 years and produce 11,000 tons of uranium.

Johnson pointed out that tourism jobs are usually seasonal and don't pay very well. A job at one of the mines could pay more than $45,000 a year, seasonal tourism jobs pay around $17,000 a year.