Tuesday, November 1, 2011

In a victory for the environment, a defeat for rural economies?

Last week, the Obama Administration released plans for a 20-year ban on new uranium (and other mineral) mining claims on 1 million acres of federal land along the "Arizona Strip" of the Grand Canyon. The decision comes after more than two years of deliberation by the Department of Interior. In 2009, the Administration issued a two-year ban on new uranium claims in the area. In June 2011, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced a six-month extension to the ban.

As Mark Clayton of the Christian Science Monitor put it, Teddy Roosevelt (who once described the canyon as "beautiful and terrible and unearthly") can "rest easy." After all, in a speech at the Grand Canyon in 1903, President Roosevelt urged,
I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the caƱon.
It is safe to assume that mining equipment, coupled with the actual scars mining creates in the earth, would fit within Teddy's view of unfavorable "improvements" to the canyon. Nevertheless, the Department of Interior's decision is not universally heralded. This environmental victory may be at the cost of jobs for residents of rural Arizona and Utah.

The headline for Clayton's Christian Science Monitor article signals the issue: "'Unearthly' beauty tops jobs? Obama freezes mining near Grand Canyon." In her short blurb on High Country News, Betsy Marston highlighted what's at stake for the people of the Arizona Strip:
The Arizona Strip north of the Grand Canyon suffers from an unemployment rate as high as 17 percent. It also suffers from, or (depending on your point of view) is blessed by, the high possibility that it contains huge amounts of uranium...At a recent eight-hour coalition get-together in St. George, Utah, most speakers talked about the decline of their small rural communities because they lacked an industrial base.
Both in class and on this blog, we've often discussed the tug-of-war between rural economic development and environmental protection, between rural self-determinism and urban decision-making. In some ways, this context seems more extreme than the usual debate. After all, its the Grand Canyon. The role of extraction industries on federal land often elicits contentious debate, but the Canyon's beauty seems to stir up more passion. The BLM received hundreds of thousands of public comments. Websites like StopUraniumMining.org emphasize the negative environmental and social impacts of proposed mining. This op-ed to the New York Times insists that the canyon is "the most precious heirloom" the United States possesses, and that it should forever be protected from mining.

Even so, much of the argument is focused around one thing: jobs. In this article from Today's News-Herald, a paper that serves the affected area, Jayne Hanson provides an excellent breakdown of county and municipal officials' views on the mining ban. At the September 2011 coalition meeting mentioned above, local officials placed a lot of emphasis on the small size of the communities and their limited economic prospects. According to the article, one affected county, Garfield County, Utah, has roughly 5,000 residents and a 17 percent unemployment rate. Fredonia, Arizona, another nearby community, has just 1,300 residents.

At the September meeting, Kane County, Utah's economic development director Matt Brown testified about the potential benefits of uranium mining. He presented data suggesting that that other mining booms have been beneficial, rather than detrimental, to tourism. As quoted in the Today's News-Herald, Mr. Brown argues
It's a significant impact that would be beneficial in the lives of Kane County and those in Northern Arizona, Coconino and Mohave County...Mining has the affect [sic] to bring everything else up.
Not surprisingly, several Members of Congress have also voiced their disapproval of the proposed ban. After Secretary Salazar's June 2011 extension, the Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee issued a press release denouncing the Administration's record on uranium development. For the coalition meeting in September, 15 House and Senate members signed letters of opposition to the ban. Arizona's Senator John McCain introduced a bill to nullify the decision before it was even released.

There seems to be no agreement on just how much economic development new uranium claims could bring. According to the Christian Science Monitor, claims on either side of the debate range from $3.4 billion to $30 billion. In defense of its decision, the Administration points out that the plan would not completely halt mining in the area, allowing for $1.2 billion in "regional economic output." The Department of Interior, through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), explained the plan, officially called a "Proposed Withdrawal from New Mining Claims":
A withdrawal would prevent individuals and companies from staking new mining claims; however, currently approved operations could continue and new operations could be approved on valid existing mining claims...In addition to possible development of any valid existing claims on any lands that are withdrawn, other federal lands in Arizona and other parts of the country remain open to hardrock mining claims, including those for uranium.
According to the article from the Christian Science Monitor, the decision does not take effect for 30 days, and Congress could still resolve to reverse it. To many, the debate sets up important questions about what we're willing to sacrifice in order to protect a treasured natural wonder. But is that the way it has to be? Jobs vs. the environment? Is there no in-between?

For further information:
See Professor Pruitt's travelogue from her visit to the Arizona Strip here.

See this post on uranium mining in Moab.

See a post on mining for uranium near Telluride, CO here.


KevinN said...

I wonder if this would even be a debate if the unemployment rate in those areas was 2 or 3% rather than 17%. It seems like the desperate economic climate has driven many places, both urban and rural, to look for short-term solutions. Just as with any other extraction industry, a time will come when the mines would shut down and the landscape would be forever changed. If times were good and only a handful of people in those towns were unemployed, I doubt that many would be clamoring for mining development. However, when nearly 1 in every 5 people is unemployed and the very future of your hometown is at stake, it is hard to blame people for making the decision that short-term economic benefits are more important than long-term ecological concerns. I just wonder how many people might change their minds about the issue if they weren't facing the prospect of having to move away from home to chase work.

Namora said...

There is an in-between in regards to the conversation on jobs and the environment. The main reason mining is even looked at as a solution to create jobs is because of all the infrastructure in place and the gears that are already running. For example, there are important business and technologies already established. It is time for the government to support a shift to clean energies that will also create jobs. Additionally, these jobs, for rural people, are just as financially profitable and are often a lot safer then traditional energy or extraction industry jobs.