Judge says environmental studies followed the law and that the government has the right to err on the side of caution
FRISCO — A 20-year ban on uranium mining on lands surrounding the Grand Canyon withstood a legal challenge from industry interests and local governments this week, as U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell ruled in favor of the federal government.
“The Court can find no legal principle that prevents DOI from acting in the face of uncertainty. Nor can the Court conclude that the Secretary abused his discretion or acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or in violation of law when he chose to err on the side of caution in protecting a national treasure – Grand Canyon National Park,” Campbell wrote in his Sept. 30 ruling that dismissed the lawsuit.
Salazar announced his intent to withdraw the lands in 2009 and the decision was finalized in 2012 after extensive studies to assess the potential impacts to the environment. Overall, the reviews showed that there was low risk for serious contamination of water sources, but that the consequences could be serious.
A U.S. Geological Survey study found water from 15 springs and five wells in the region where dissolved uranium concentrations exceeded EPA maximu concentrations for drinking water. The agency was uncertain whether these concentrations resulted from mining, natural processes, or both.
The USGS also found that floods, flas floods, and debris flows caused by winter storms and intense summer thunderstorms transported substantial volumes of trace elements and radionuclides, and that fractures, faults, sinkholes, and breccia pipes occur throughout the area and are potential pathways for downward migration of contaminants.
Conservation groups and Arizona’s Havasupai Tribe praised the decision.
“The Havasupai support the withdrawal of the lands from mining for the protection of our homes and our water. The ruling today by Judge Campbell recognizes the unique and important resources on the lands south of Grand Canyon that are our aboriginal homelands and within the watershed that feeds our springs and flows into our canyon home,” said Havasupai Chairman Rex Tilousi.
The tribe and conservation helped to defend Interior’s decision to protect Grand Canyon’s springs and creeks, wildlife and vistas from new toxic uranium-mining pollution. The groups and tribe were represented by public-interest law firms Earthjustice and Western Mining Action Project.
“The lands surrounding Grand Canyon are full of natural beauty,” said Ted Zukoski, an Earthjustice staff attorney who helped represent the groups in the lawsuit. “The life-giving waters and deer, elk, condors, and other wildlife found there deserve protection from the toxic pollution and industrialization threatened by large-scale uranium mining. That is why it was critical to defend these lands from this self-serving attack by the uranium industry.”
The mining industry lawsuit asserted that the Interior Department’s exhaustive, 700-page evaluation of environmental impacts was inadequate.
“The court’s ruling affirms conclusions by five federal agencies, including scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey,” said Grand Canyon Trust’s Roger Clark. “Uranium mining poses unacceptable risks to Grand Canyon’s water, wildlife, and people. It should be permanently banned from our region.”
One of the great symbols of the American West, Grand Canyon was first protected as a national monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and is surrounded by millions of additional acres of public lands that include wilderness areas, two national monuments, lands designated to protect endangered species and cultural resources, and old-growth ponderosa pine forests.
The canyon area is also home to the Havasupai, Kaibab Band of Paiutes, Hualapai and Navajo tribes and has been designated a World Heritage site. The greater Grand Canyon region attracts about five million tourists and recreationists per year.
Interior’s study of the mining time-out showed that, without the withdrawal, 26 new uranium mines and 700 uranium exploration projects would be developed, resulting in more than 1,300 acres of surface disturbance and the consumption of 316 million gallons of water.
Under the ban, existing mine operations are projected to have about one-tenth of the surface impacts and one-third the water usage over a 20-year period. If new uranium mining were allowed, uranium levels in some springs could rise to twice the level of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standards and aquifers could be severely depleted, endangering public health and wildlife, and compromising the values of the tribes who consider the springs sacred.
The uranium mining companies have 60 days to appeal Judge Campbell’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and are likely to do so, given their past statements.
“If the mining companies do appeal, we’ll be there to defend the Secretary’s – and Judge Campbell’s – prudent decisions,” said Zukoski.
‘Stealth’ bill pending in House after passing committee without a hearing
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — In a classic bit of stealth lawmaking, House Resources Committee chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) last month opened the door for more widespread recreation day use fees on federal lands.
Without a committee hearing, Hastings sent HR 5204 (The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Modernization Act of 2014) to the floor of the House, where it could, according to critics, become law without any public hearing at all as a rider to a budget bill. Continue reading
Environment: BLM plans in-depth study of oil and gas leases on Colorado’s White River National Forest
BLM taking input during scoping phase of environmental study
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — Lynx, elk, owls and other high country forest critters in western Colorado will get at least a temporary reprieve from potential oil and gas drilling, as the federal Bureau of Land Management announced last week that it will do an in-depth environmental study for 65 existing oil and gas leases on 80,000 acres of public lands managed by the White River National Forest.
The leases are spread roughly west to east along biologically important mid-elevation lands between Carbondale and DeBeque and overlap designated roadless areas. Conservation advocates have long argued that the sale of the leases was inconsistent with efforts to protect wildlife, water quality and other high-value natural resources. Continue reading
Court says private concession companies don’t have to meet agency standards for recreation fees on public lands
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — One of the legal efforts to try and check the recent proliferation of public land access fees was rebuffed by a federal court in Washington, D.C. last week. U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that private companies running recreation facilities on federal lands don’t have to follow the same regulations as agency managed facilities.
In a worst-case scenario, the ruling could open the door to more widespread fees for trailhead parking and other types of access that have traditionally been free, said Kitty Benzar, president of the West Slope No-Fee Coalition, a group dedicated to eliminating fees charged for access and recreation on undeveloped public lands.
Court ruling repudiates Bush-era policies that favored exploitation over preservation
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — A federal court this week rejected a bush-era land management plan in Utah, requiring the Bureau of Land Management to go back and consider the destructive impacts of motorized use in some of the state most cherished wild areas.
The Richfield-area resource management plan had designated more than 4,200 miles of dirt roads and trails, enough miles to drive from Atlanta to Anchorage, for ORV vehicle use despite evidence of environmental damage and conflicts with other public lands visitors.
According to environmental groups, the plan prioritized motorized recreation, threatening world-famous southern Utah wilderness landscapes like the Dirty Devil Canyon complex (including Butch Cassidy’s infamous hideout, Robber’s Roost), the Henry Mountains (the last mountain range to be mapped in the lower 48 states) and Factory Butte. Continue reading
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State officials want to balance fossil fuel development with wildlife conservation
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — Despite the fact fossil fuel development is devastating wildlife habitat in northwest Colorado, state officials are pressing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep greater sage-grouse off the endangered species list.
In a press release, Gov. John Hickenlooper‘s office described oil and gas drilling as “vibrant economic activities,” and touted voluntary conservation activities shaped by local stakeholders as an alternative to a federal conservation plan.
“Given the unique landscapes and natural resources in Colorado, a Colorado-based solution is more practical that one handed down by the federal government,” Hickenlooper said in a prepared statement. “We hope the Bureau of Land Management will look at the public-private partnerships that have been so successful in Colorado as a model on how to get things done.” Continue reading
Biodiversity: BLM releases draft version of greater sage-grouse conservation plan for northwestern Colorado
FRISCO — These days, the vast sagebrush ocean of the Intermountain West is under siege by drilling rigs, sprawling exurban development and, in some cases, poor grazing practices on public lands.
Altogether, those pressures have degraded habitat across big swaths of the landscape. The damage is reflected by the sharp decline in greater sage-grouse populations. The birds have disappeared from half of their former range and are a candidate for the endangered species list, likely to be designated as threatened or endangered.
The listing could come as soon as 2015 — unless federal land managers and local governments can agree on a conservation plan with enough safeguards to satisfy the biologists who will consider the listing.
The Bureau of Land Management, which administers much of the territory with key sage-grouse habitat, is working toward that goal in the west-wide National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Effort, and last week released a draft environmental study for northwestern Colorado for a 90-day comment period. Continue reading
Filed under: biodiversity, BLM, endangered species, Environment, public lands, US Forest Service | Tagged: biodiversity, BLM, Bureau of Land management, Colorado, endangered species act, Greater sage-grouse, Intermountain West, public lands, Wilderness Society | Leave a comment »