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Public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park contain some of the highest concentrations of uranium deposits in North America. Spikes in uranium prices in recent years have caused an explosion of new mining claims and exploration on those lands. Threats posed by exploration and the potential mining it portends — damage to wildlife and habitat, contamination of waters, and the industrialization of iconic landscapes — has prompted objections from conservation groups, native tribes, government officials and the public. It has spawned litigation spearheaded by the Center, as well as congressional action including legislation and a resolution on emergency mineral withdrawal.

But after years of work in court and out by the Center for Biological Diversity and allies — and thousands of our supporters speaking out — the Obama administration announced a final plan to protect 1 million acres of the Grand Canyon watershed from new uranium mining. Multiple lawsuits are threatening that ban — but the Center is working hard to make sure it stays in place.


South Rim Litigation

In March 2008, the Center filed suit against the Kaibab National Forest for approving a plan to conduct exploratory uranium drilling at 39 sites just south of Grand Canyon National Park, the first of five such projects slated for the area. Our challenge focused on the validity of the Forest Service’s use of a categorical exclusion from National Environmental Policy Act requirements in authorizing the plan. After a federal judge halted the project in April 2008, we settled the case in what attorneys considered a “complete victory,” compelling the Forest Service to produce a comprehensive environmental impact statement for which a study is now underway. The suit attracted national media attention and has anchored a broader campaign.

Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act

Soon after we filed our South Rim suit, and spurred by water-contamination concerns raised in the context of that suit, Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva introduced legislation to take 1 million acres of public land in watersheds surrounding the Grand Canyon out of consideration for mining. The Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act would invalidate all unproven claims, prevent the staking of new claims, and prohibit the exploration of unproven claims — thereby preventing the establishment of mining rights that are difficult to reverse. The Center was instrumental in helping to arrange a field hearing in which leaders from five tribes, scientists and the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park all testified about uranium’s deadly impacts and either implied or explicitly stated support for the bill.

Congressional Withdrawal and Legislation

To protect the canyon pending the passing of the Grand Canyon Watershed Protection Act, the House Natural Resources Committee in June of 2008 voted 20-2 to invoke a little-known provision of the Federal Land Management Policy Act requiring the interior secretary to enact a three-year emergency mineral withdrawal. The withdrawal affords the same protections from new uranium activity across the same acres set forth in Grijalva’s bill — but for a period of three years. In the fall of 2008, the Center challenged the Interior Department’s authorization of new uranium exploration in violation of the withdrawal.

Proposed Mining Limits Around the Grand Canyon

In 2009, the Obama administration enacted a two-year “segregation” — meaning, in this case, the prohibition of certain activities on a particular piece of land — that bars new mining claims and development of existing claims “for which valid rights have not been established” across 1 million acres of watershed around the Grand Canyon. The administration also initiated an environmental impact statement process to study extending that protection forward 20 years through the enactment of what’s called a “mineral withdrawal.” Together, these actions would go far toward preventing new uranium mines that would threaten the Grand Canyon and its springs, and they placed a heavier legal burden on attempts by the uranium industry to reopen old mines. In 2011, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar extended protections for the canyon until the end of 2011 — and of course, now those protections have been extended for much longer.

Ongoing Threats

Still, our substantial victories haven’t gone unchallenged, and the 1 million precious acres around Grand Canyon National Park aren’t completely in the clear. In 2012 the mining industry filed multiple lawsuits in federal court challenging the Interior Department’s enactment of the 20-year ban on new mining in the area. In response the Center and allies announced plans to intervene on the side of the government to defend the Grand Canyon. In April 2012 the court granted the Center, the Havasupai tribe and three other groups the chance to defend the ban in court. After an initial victory in 2013, we continue to work with the Department of the Interior in court to defend the mineral withdrawal.

Also, the Obama administration’s direction hasn’t stopped the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service from allowing old mines near Grand Canyon National Park to reopen without updating antiquated environmental reviews. In 2009 the Center sued the Bureau for failing to undertake new environmental reviews for the Arizona 1 mine — new reviews hadn’t been conducted since 1988 — seeking to halt the reopening of the mine. The Center and our allies are also in court challenging the Forest Service’s refusal to update a 1986 environmental analysis for the Canyon Mine, located just a few miles south of Grand Canyon National Park. The government’s refusal to take a fresh look at these “zombie” mines, despite a quarter-century of new information and changed circumstances, runs directly counter to its recent recognition that a mining ban is necessary to protect the water.

Grand Canyon uranium mine photo © Bill Ferris