Few places inspire like the Grand Canyon.
Not only is it a geological wonder, it's also one of the most biologically diverse national parks in the United States -- home to more than 1,000 species of plants, 76 species of mammals, 299 bird species, 41 reptiles and amphibians and 16 species of fish.
That's why it's so astonishing that some members of Congress would put this world-famous icon in jeopardy.
As early as today, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on a budget rider that would halt years of work to protect the Grand Canyon and the surrounding area from dangerous uranium mining. The budget rider would prohibit the Department of the Interior from enacting a ban on new mining claims -- and mining on the vast majority of existing claims -- across 1 million acres of public land that form Grand Canyon National Park's watershed.
If the rider passes, the iconic wildlands around Grand Canyon would be dramatically transformed. Roads and mines would be built. Wildlife habitat would be destroyed. The risk of pollution in streams, creeks, seeps and springs would skyrocket. The place that millions consider a national treasure could become a radioactive industrial zone.
Unfortunately, pollution from past uranium mining already plagues springs, creeks and soil in and around Grand Canyon National Park.
Hydrologists warn that more mining would further pollute and deplete aquifers feeding Grand Canyon's springs and creeks -- pollution that would be impossible to clean up. Almost all the Grand Canyon's perennial surface water, aside from the Colorado River, comes from aquifer-fed springs; these team with life, supporting up to 500 times as many species as adjacent uplands, including rare, endemic, threatened and endangered species -- like white-flowering redbud trees, humpback chub and Kanab ambersnails.
The prospect of more uranium mining has already prompted protests, litigation and proposed legislation. Scientists, tribal and local governments, water municipalities and businesses groups have all voiced opposition to new mining.
In July 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar placed a two-year moratorium on new uranium mines across 1 million acres at the Grand Canyon. Last month, he extended the ban until the end of this year and announced support for a 20-year ban as the Department's "preferred alternative" in its long-term policy for the region.
But some in Congress want to make pork of public lands by handing the Grand Canyon's watershed over to the uranium industry. Their rider would foreclose any possibility that these 1 million acres -- acres that belong to the public and are cherished for their beauty and ecological importance -- get the protection they deserve.
Left unchecked, this proposal will ultimately convert one of the most extraordinary landscapes on the planet into just one more place scarred by industrial greed and burdened with a long, polluted legacy. That's hardly a fate that befits this national treasure.