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Tucson Citizen, January 23, 2009

Grijalva reintroduces bill to protect Grand Canyon
The Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF - Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Tucson, who has been pushing for protection of the Grand Canyon from uranium mining, says he is hopeful the new presidential administration will be more receptive to his efforts.

Grijalva reintroduced legislation this week to ban new mining claims on more than 1 million acres of federal lands north and south of the Grand Canyon.

The House Natural Resources Committee had invoked a little-used rule to stop any new claims for up to three years, but the Interior Department refused to recognize the action and continued to authorize additional mining claims.

Grijalva said Friday he is hopeful he won't be met with resistance from the Obama administration as he had under the Bush administration. Public lands will certainly play into the energy debate, but Grijalva said the Grand Canyon is above that debate.

"It is the icon of our National Park System and our forest, and as such has a different status in the history of public lands and the value of public lands," he said. "We're making a distinction, and maybe it's an unfair distinction to other areas, but at some point you need to draw a line in the sand."

While the legislation is being considered, Grijalva and environmentalists are looking to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for temporary protections at the Grand Canyon.

A coalition of environmental groups sued former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne last year over the department's refusal to recognize the House committee's emergency withdrawal of the land from uranium mining claims. The Interior Department contended the committee meeting lacked a quorum and that the measure didn't constitute an emergency.

The Bureau of Land Management later stripped from its regulations the provision that gave the House committee the power to compel the Interior secretary to temporarily place public land off limits to mining and oil and gas development.

The BLM said it moved to end the rule because it was redundant. The rule allows the Interior secretary to issue emergency withdrawals when mining and other development poses a threat to natural resources.

There are more than 1,100 uranium mining claims within five miles of the Grand Canyon National park, and Grijalva and environmentalists contend that no new operations should be proposed when the old mining sites haven't been cleaned up.

"We think that the permanent protection by legislation is critical, and in the interim, we need administrative protection, and we're looking to the Obama administration for that," said Taylor McKinnon, public-lands program director for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton