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Interior Goes Nuke-u-lar on Grand Canyon

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne didn't like the law that required him to promptly protect public lands around the Grand Canyon from uranium mining.  So he's getting rid of it. Citizens have only a few days to express their opposition.

With less than 100 days left in its life, the current administration has its hands full.  The economy is on its scariest roller-coaster ride in generations. And we're still fighting two wars.  You'd think the administration would be too busy to do anything else.

But those industrious folk at the Interior Department and the Forest Service aren't distracted.  No, sir.  They have their eyes on the prize.  And the prize is a gift to a foreign company that wants to pock-mark National Forest land on the doorstep of Grand Canyon National Park with uranium mines.

At the center of this tempest is a proposal by the U.S. Forest Service to permit uranium mining on the Kaibab National Forest.  The agency originally tried to let mining go ahead with virtually no environmental review or public input.  Not surprisingly, they got sued.  And, not surprisingly, they lost.  (See my prior post on the story so far.)

But the Administration wasn't done.  They wanted to move ahead with the plan.

This didn't sit well with Congressman Raul Grijalva.  He represents the Seventh District of the Grand Canyon State.  And he was in a position to do something about the Administration's plan because he's also Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee for National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

Grijalva pressed his colleagues on the Natural Resources Committee to invoke a little-used provision of law to try to force the Interior Department to prevent new uranium claims from being filed on BLM and Forest Service land adjacent to the Grand Canyon.   In June, the Committee formally instructed Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to protect the lands with a "withdrawal" on an emergency basis before hundreds of new claims got filed.  (Here's the resolution itself.)

How did Interior react?  They did nothing.  They simply ignored the Natural Resources Committee's direction. 

Grijalva was, understandably, not happy about being ignored.  Nor were conservation groups hoping to protect the water and wildlife on the North Rim.  And so, late last month, the agency got sued.

The Interior Department's response was nothing short of breathtaking.  Rather than do what the rule required and protect the forests near the Canyon, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed unilaterally repealing the rule requiring him to protect public lands in an emergency.  And Kempthorne provides only 15 days for the public to comment on this nuking of an important protection for public lands.

Grijalva was not amused.  Nor were the groups that sued the Interior Department.

This conflict is not about marring a scenic vista.  Or about whether America should be exploring for and developing uranium on public lands. 

As the Arizona Republic pointed out on October 13, it's about drinking water, and wildlife, and toxic pollution on the doorstep of one of America's most treasured landscapes.  And it's about the Bush Administration's desire to ignore all those impacts, and to go so far as to change the law to make sure Congress can't press the President to protect public lands in the face of an imminent threat.

And, last, it's about not letting the Interior Department get away with these kind of shenanigans without feeling the heat.  You can send comments until October 25 to:  Director (630), Bureau of Land Management, 1620 L Street NW, Room 401, Washington, DC 20036.

Or you can email them via this link to the website.