The Trump administration’s plan to dramatically increase mining in the U.S. puts the Grand Canyon in the crosshairs
Interior Department would strip protections, make it easier to mine sensitive public lands across the West
In just over two years, the Interior Department has quickly checked items off of the oil and gas industry’s wish list — offering leases to more than 18 million acres of public lands for oil and gas development, proposing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and virtually the entire American coastline for drilling, and rolling back a raft of drilling safeguards. Now, the Trump administration has shifted its focus to the mining industry’s list of requests, announcing a plan to dramatically ramp up mining in the United States. The move puts some of the West’s most iconic public lands, including the Grand Canyon and Bears Ears National Monument, in jeopardy.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has often been called a “walking conflict of interest” after working for dozens of oil and gas companies with business before the Interior Department. But Bernhardt’s conflicts aren’t limited to oil and gas — he also worked for Rosemont Copper, uranium miner Ur-Energy, and American West Potash, all companies that stand to benefit from rolling back protections on public lands and wildlife.
On Tuesday, Bernhardt announced the administration’s “Federal Strategy to Ensure a Reliable Supply of Critical Minerals.” Among other things, the wide-ranging plan seeks to identify minerals on public lands, remove protections for areas with mineral potential, then streamline environmental reviews to make mine permitting faster and less stringent — a checklist the mining industry could have written themselves. Importantly, the plan targets mineral withdrawals, which make certain lands ineligible for new mining leases, for elimination. With this order, it appears that current protections for lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park could be first on the chopping block, opening up the potential for uranium pollution in the canyon’s watershed.
The four corners region has long experienced the booms and busts of uranium mining, particularly within the Navajo Nation, leaving generations of people to deal with its toxic legacy. Lands surrounding the Grand Canyon are rich in high-grade uranium ore, and after a spike in uranium prices in the late 2000s, companies filed thousands of mining claims. There are several active uranium mines near the park, including one just six miles from the South Rim. In 2012, responding to the spike in new claims, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims on 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon, seeking to protect the watershed that feeds into it from uranium pollution.
Bernhardt’s plan seeks to systematically dismantle protections for the Greater Grand Canyon region and other iconic places around the West.
First, it orders the agency to review all mineral withdrawals for reduction or elimination, prioritizing areas where there is high mineral potential. Currently, mineral withdrawals protect the Greater Grand Canyon watershed, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park, and prime recreation lands in Wyoming, among others. With known deposits of high-grade uranium, it seems likely that the Grand Canyon withdrawal will be at the top of the list. Bernhardt’s support for dismantling mineral withdrawals is notable, as former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke implemented multiple withdrawals in 2018 and defended the Grand Canyon withdrawal in court.
Second, the plan would require land managers to identify high mineral potential areas when drafting land use plans, “before they can be recommended for withdrawal or encumbered with a land-use designation that would restrict the development of these resources.” This policy seeks to prevent the protection of public lands, which could apply to lands carved out of Bears Ears National Monument (uranium potential), prime recreation lands near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks (potash), and of course the Grand Canyon watershed.
Next, the plan would require land managers to create travel management plans that “facilitate access for exploration and development of minerals.” Designing plans to maximize exploration and mining could lead to new and expanded roads carved through sensitive areas around the West, such as archaeologically-rich Cedar Mesa, cut from Bears Ears. Lastly, the plan proposes to create new loopholes in the National Environmental Policy Act, allowing the agency to rubber stamp mineral exploration and mining activities without appropriate environmental review.
The contents of Bernhardt’s mining plan make it clear who he’s listening to. Since 2017, Bernhardt has met with the National Mining Association three separate times — meetings that were disguised on calendars released to the public — including lunch with the group’s CEO. The National Mining Association has sued to overturn the Greater Grand Canyon moratorium, and after losing in court, they lobbied the Interior Department to eliminate all mineral withdrawals over 5,000 acres. Similarly, after being lobbied by uranium company Energy Fuels Resources, the Interior Department successfully recommended that President Trump dramatically cut Bears Ears National Monument and remove areas with uranium potential.
In the years prior to joining the Trump administration, Bernhardt’s clients in the oil, gas, and mining industries paid his law firm millions of dollars to advance their policy priorities. With this plan, Bernhardt’s clients are getting their money’s worth.