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Uranium Industry Attack on Grand Canyon

At the beginning of the last century, Ralph H. Cameron was a booster of the Grand Canyon. He wanted to promote – and cash in on - the Canyon as a tourist destination. He helped expand Bright Angel Trail, now one of the most popular trails into the Canyon from the South Rim.  But at a price; he charged a toll to visitors.

He also tried to turn chunks of national forest land near the rim into his own property by staking claims under the oft-criticized 1872 mining law.

It didn’t work. Forest Service mineral examiners denied Cameron’s mining claims as bogus.

The ambitious Cameron – later a U.S. senator – did not go quietly. The Feds had to sue Cameron to kick him off the public’s land. Cameron fought back, claiming that President Roosevelt had no authority to designate the Grand Canyon a national monument under the Antiquities Act.

If the courts had agreed, future attempts to protect some of America’s best know natural landscapes – the Grand Tetons, Death Valley – would have been thwarted.

But the Supreme Court did not agree. In his opinion rebuffing Mr. Cameron’s argument, Supreme Court Justice Willis Van Devanter waxed eloquent on the Grand Canyon as a place of wonder:

"It is the greatest eroded canyon in the United States, if not in the world, is over a mile in depth, has attracted wide attention among explorers and scientists, affords an unexampled field for geologic study, is regarded as one of the great natural wonders, and annually draws to its borders thousands of visitors.”

The court found the Antiquities Act gave President Roosevelt the authority to create the national monument, and secured the Grand Canyon’s future protection.

Flash forward a hundred years.

The new foes of protecting the Grand Canyon region look a lot like Mr. Cameron.  They are uranium miners who’ve staked thousands of claims ringing the national park.

Uranium mining has left a toxic legacy in the area, polluting water that run through the Park, which has prompted the Park Service to warn hikers not to drink the water of certain streams, iincluding Horn Creek. (New mines are supposed to be better and cleaner. But the water pollution threatened by the “modern” flooded mines shows otherwise.)

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stood up for protecting the lands around the national park, putting a million acres off limits to new mining claims.

The uranium industry, like Mr. Cameron, doesn’t like protecting the Grand Canyon. And like Mr. Cameron, they are attacking not only the Grand Canyon protection measures, but also the Interior Secretary’s authority to protect lands. (Industry claims the Interior Department can’t protect more than 5,000 acres at a time from uranium mining claims.)

This time, Earthjustice and our clients – the Havasupai Tribe, Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and National Parks Conservation Association – will be fighting to protect the Grand Canyon.  (We filed legal papers to formally intervene in the first of three industry suits last week.)

If history is going to repeat itself, with miners hoping to degrade wildlife habitat, waters and one of America’s natural wonders for profit, we’ll work to ensure the courts again recognize the Canyon’s majesty and again reject the miner’s attacks.


Follow Ted on Twitter @TedZukoski

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