Grand Decisions

style="height:200px;" The U.S. National Park system protects some of the most stunning sites in America. Since its founding in 1916, the National Park Service has protected the geysers of Yellowstone, the redwoods of California, and the eponymous glaciers of Glacier National Park. Of all the national parks, however, Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park might hold the most recognizable landscape. One of the world’s largest canyons, the Grand Canyon is the legacy of the erosive power of the Colorado River and a breathtaking site that attracts more than five million visitors each year. Protected since 1919 by Grand Canyon National Park, the site was further safeguarded on Monday, when the Interior Department announced that it was prohibiting future uranium mining claims around the park.

Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, withdrew over one million acres from available mining lands for the next twenty years to allow time for “monitoring to inform future land use decisions in this treasured area.” The withdrawal will allow previous claims to be developed but will place a temporary hold on the rapidly increasing number of claims — driven by the rapidly rising price for uranium — until the effects of hardrock mining around the Colorado River can be assessed. As one of the largest watersheds in the West and a major source of water for California’s agriculturally rich Imperial Valley, the effects of damages to the Colorado River from mining could be costly and far-reaching.

Coupled with the explicit recognition in Salazar’s statement that the land withdrawn from uranium mining is still open for geothermal development, the decision to delay future claims in the name of further research is a victory for sustainable development in America. Like the November postponement of the Keystone XL pipeline, pending a new environmental impact assessment, the withdrawal of land available for uranium claims prioritizes development that fully understands its consequences over the rapid, unaware and unplanned development that often results in surprises.

Predictably, the reaction from mining interests around the Grand Canyon to this announcement has been strongly negative. Industry proponents have loudly claimed that the withdrawal will prevent job growth in a region that has already been badly hurt by the recession. As one commentator has said, it is a missed opportunity for the country. Yet this reaction ignores the reality that the National Park system is a significant driver of job creation in rural America. By strengthening the protection of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, the Interior Department may be creating jobs rather than destroying them.

Over 100 prominent economists recently submitted a letter to President Obama in which they ask, in the name of economic growth and job creation, that he increase the number of publicly protected lands and improve the infrastructure of existing protection. The letter suggests that these areas attract tourism, improve livability and create mobile, white-collar jobs. The economists ask that we shift the West’s economic model from one based on resource extraction to one based on the enjoyment of its natural treasures, creating long-term, sustainable jobs.

The case these economists make is bolstered by a recently released report from the Center for American Progress calling for the same increases in investment in the National Park system. Studies cited in the report found that National Parks contributed $47 billion to local economics and generated over 350,000 jobs. The Grand Canyon in particular supported over 6,000 jobs in 2010. This is in stark contrast with claims that the withdrawal will prevent 465 jobs in the region from materializing.

Despite the claims of those in opposition to the mining withdrawal, the Interior Department’s decision to temporarily suspend new claims is a victory for the region and for sustainable development. It will allow the effects of uranium mining on a critical watershed to be examined more closely, it will protect the water supply of a critical farming region and it will make the region more attractive to tourism, the future engine of growth in the region. Critically, the decision does not forbid all future development; it only suspends development until a more informed decision can be made. For all of these reasons, it serves as an example of sustainable development in practice.