The Obama administration is banning new hard rock mining on more than a million acres near the Grand Canyon, an area known to be rich in high-grade uranium ore reserves.
The decision, announced Monday by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, hands a victory to environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers who had worked for years to limit mining near the national park, one of the nation's most popular tourist destinations.
"When families travel to see the Grand Canyon, they have a right to expect that the only glow they will see will come from the sun setting over the rim of this natural wonder, and not from the radioactive contamination that comes from uranium mining," said Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
But congressional Republicans and industry groups opposed it, arguing that Salazar was eliminating hundreds of jobs and depriving the country of a critically important energy source. The area near the Grand Canyon contains as much as 40 percent of the nation's known uranium resources, worth tens of billions of dollars.
McCain said the ban was "fueled by an emotional public relations campaign pitting the public's love for the Grand Canyon against a modern form of low-impact mining that occurs many miles from the canyon walls."
During a speech at the National Geographic Society, Salazar said he was "at peace" with the decision, one of the most high-profile actions of his three-year tenure at Interior. Salazar twice had imposed temporary bans on mining claims.
"A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape," Salazar said. "People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place, and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water (and) irrigation."
The decision imposes a 20-year ban on new mining claims on federal land near the Grand Canyon. About 3,000 mining claims already staked in the area will not be affected, although officials expect fewer than a dozen mines to be developed under existing claims.
While uranium remains an important part of a comprehensive energy strategy, Salazar said, the Grand Canyon is a national treasure that must be protected. Salazar called the ban "a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations."
Uranium is used in nuclear power plants, which supply about 20 percent of the nation's electricity.
The national park attracts more than 4 million visitors a year and generates an estimated $3.5 billion in economic activity. About 26 million Americans in four states, including the cities of Phoenix and Los Angeles, rely on the Colorado River for clean drinking water.
Conservation groups called the 20-year ban a crucial protection for an American icon. Uranium reserves near the Grand Canyon pose a real and present threat to Grand Canyon National Park and its water supply, said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.
McKinnon and other environmentalists disputed claims by the mining industry and some Republican members of Congress that the ban would hurt the state's economy and the nation's energy independence.
"The real economic engine in northern Arizona is not uranium mining. It's tourism," McKinnon said. "To jeopardize our economic engine with more toxic uranium mining is unacceptable."
GOP lawmakers lambasted the ban, calling it an overreach that jeopardizes jobs for no proven reason. They cited a study showing that even a severe mining accident would increase uranium levels in the Colorado River by an amount undetectable over levels normally carried by the river from erosion of geologic deposits.
"It is unconscionable that the administration has yet again caved to political pressure from radical special interest groups rather than standing up for the American people," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah. "Banning access to the most uranium-rich land in the United States will be overwhelmingly detrimental to both jobs in Utah and Arizona and our nation's domestic energy security."
Bishop, McCain and other GOP lawmakers back legislation that would prevent the Interior Department from imposing the 20-year ban.
Using modern techniques, mining does not affect drinking water from the Colorado River, the GOP lawmakers said.
The Bureau of Land Management said the 20-year ban on new mining claims would reduce overall uranium production by about 6 percent of current U.S. demand.
State, local and federal governments are expected to lose an estimated $16.6 million in annual tax revenue, and 465 jobs would not materialize.
The Bush administration had opened up land near the canyon 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.