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Guest opinion

Grijalva: Conservation wins big one at Grand Canyon

At least 8,500 mining claims near Canyon, up from 100 in 2003

It's not too dramatic to say the Grand Canyon has been under siege from mining claims for several years now. As I wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar May 4, there are at least 8,500 mining claims near the Canyon, up from the 100 claims on file in January of 2003. That's why June 20 was such a big day in the history of American conservation. In a ceremony I was proud to attend, Sec. Salazar said he will recommend withdrawing more than 1 million acres around the Canyon from mining claims for the next 20 years. It was, in every sense, a huge deal.

My May 4 letter to Salazar was part of a years-long campaign by a number of very committed groups and individuals to make sure the crown jewel of our National Park system isn't sold out or polluted to make a buck. The public came through in a huge way for the Canyon at forums and in written comments. This isn't a victory for any one person or one group. It sounds hokey, but it's really true -- this was a victory for all of us.

Current law caps administrative land withdrawals at 20 years, and with this announcement, Sec. Salazar has done as much as he's able to do. I wholeheartedly support his decision. At the same time, I don't think we should have to revisit this issue in 20 years or 100 years. I've introduced bills every Congress since 2008 permanently to protect the area in question, which includes three sections of National Forest land that mining companies have eyed for years.The Grand Canyon is the furthest thing from a political football I can think of. It's not "on the table" or a "bargaining chip" -- it's one of the great wonders of the world, a beautiful and thought-provoking monument to the creative powers of nature. That's why I'm going to keep introducing my bill to protect the land in perpetuity.

To appreciate how important this is, it helps to know the context. The current House Republican majority hasn't signaled much interest in wilderness, public land protection, or really conservation of any kind. The stakes for this decision were very high. Congress wasn't waiting just over the horizon to protect the Grand Canyon.

Sec. Salazar's announcement surprised even those of us who have followed the issue for years. There were officially four options on the table, including allowing mining to go forward throughout the entire region. While we weren't expecting that outcome, we'd prepared for a split-the-difference withdrawal of 650,000 acres. The fact that he's extending the full available protection speaks volumes about the importance of the Canyon itself and about the potential threats it faces.

As I wrote May 4, "Eleven hundred [mining] claims are within five miles of the Canyon; the closest company to break ground, Denison Mines, is less than 2 miles from the Park boundary. That mine, known as 'Arizona 1,' received 38 violations from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2010 alone." That's not the kind of operation we need near the Grand Canyon or anywhere else people rely on tourism and a pristine environment for their livelihood.

This isn't over just yet. The last step comes when the Bureau of Land Management releases its final environmental impact statement on the Canyon in about six months. That document will decide whether Sec. Salazar's recommendation is scientifically defensible, which few of us outside the mining industry doubt. Once that final analysis is conducted, we'll have our answer. It's been a long trip, and it looks like it's going to end happily.

The best thing we can do now is keep talking about why the Grand Canyon is such a special, important part of the American experience. And as I was happy to do June 20, we can thank Sec. Salazar for making a wise choice.

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U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva represents Arizona’s 7th Congressional District.

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