(CN) - More than one million acres of public land near the Grand Canyon are off limits to new mining claims for the next 20 years, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced this week.
The move, which caps more than two years of study and public debate, prohibits new mining of uranium and other hard rock in portions of northern Arizona's Kaibab National Forest and other public lands north of Grand Canyon National Park. The decision does not affect existing and previously approved uranium mining or "new projects that could be approved on claims and sites with valid existing rights,"
Salazar said. There are more than 3,000 existing mining claims in the withdrawal area.
As many as "11 uranium mines, including four that are currently approved, could still be developed based on valid pre-existing rights," the Bureau of Land Management said in a statement.
Without the withdrawal, there could be 30 uranium mines developed near the park in the coming decades, according an environmental impact statement's estimate.
"A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape," Salazar said in a statement. "People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use. We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations."
The withdrawn area includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest, 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands and 23,993 acres of land where the federal government owns the subsurface mineral rights.
Rep. Jeff Flake, a Republican congressman who represents Arizona's sixth district, condemned the withdrawal as a job-killer and introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to stop the move.
"Uranium mining in northern Arizona occurs well outside Grand Canyon National Park and poses no threat to the Grand Canyon or the tourism industry in northern Arizona," Flake said in a statement. "This withdrawal is simply another example of the Obama administration's overreach that will stymie local economic growth and local job creation. The Grand Canyon is a treasure, so if I believed that uranium mining in parts of northern Arizona posed a threat to the canyon, I would not support it."