There is this game that is played every time control of the White House shifts from one party to the other. It probably happens in all federal agencies, but I have followed it most closely at the Department of the Interior. When a Democratic administration is in power, it issues regulations to save more land from development. When a Republican administration is in power, it undoes the work of the prior Democratic administration to open up the land to commercial interests, whether for drilling or mining or development and so on. Then it proceeds to open up or sell off more federal land. Then the Democratic administration proceeds to protect the land left unprotected by the GOP, and so it goes.
Last week the White House took a bold stand, a rare event for this White House, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a ban on new hard-rock mining claims on a million acres near Grand Canyon National Park. The now-protected land is rich in high-grade uranium ore reserves.
Democrats argue the Grand Canyon is a national icon that must be protected against the eventuality that a mining disaster could destroy parts of the canyon or pollute the Colorado River that flows through it.
Republicans cry the 20-year ban will cost our energy-hungry nation billions of dollars worth of uranium ore and block the creation of 465 jobs. But they ignore the economic engine that is the national park. That engine could be destroyed by a mining accident, particularly one involving radiation. The park attracts more than 4 million visitors each year and generates $3.5 billion in regional income.
Vital source of water
The Associated Press reports that, because of the ban, “state, local and federal governments are expected to lose an estimated $16.6 million in annual tax revenue, and 465 jobs would not materialize.” Quite frankly, the projected lost tax revenue is nothing compared to what the park generates. Nobody wants to lose jobs in a downturn, but 465 is a fraction of the jobs that could be lost if a mining accident were to shut down the park.
There is also one other major factor at stake that I believe Republicans ignore at their peril. The Colorado River is the major water source for 26 million Americans in seven states. It is also the principal water source for Phoenix and Los Angeles and three large agricultural valleys in California, including the Imperial Valley. Can you imagine the impact of a mining accident along the Colorado? It would be catastrophic. It is unfathomable to try to envision no water for 26 million people and the businesses that serve them, as well as food production brought to a halt at some of the nation’s most important growing centers.
President Theodore Roosevelt, father of the national park system and, of course, a Republican, tried but failed to name the Grand Canyon a national park. So he gave it the status of a national monument instead. It was designated a national park after he left office. When he dedicated the gateway to Yellowstone in 1903, Roosevelt praised the national parks’ “essential democracy,” in that they preserve wilderness and scenery “for the people as a whole.”
It’s a sad, sad commentary on today’s GOP that party leaders have either forgotten or shed their TR roots. Luckily for the Grand Canyon, the Obama administration is finally taking a bold stand on a matter of great importance to our environment and to the 26 million Americans who rely on the Colorado for water. Taking a bold stand is something this administration does all too rarely.
Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email: Bonnie.firstname.lastname@example.org.