(CNSNews.com) - Slammed by western-state lawmakers for banning new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon -- and the jobs it would create -- the Obama administration on Monday stressed the role of tourism and leisure in job creation.
"The president and all of our team are optimistic that our best day are ahead, and indeed, when you look at job creation over the last several years, we have been making steady progress," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at the National Geographic Society in Washington, where he signed a 20-year moratorium on new uranium-mining leases on 1 million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon.
"As we make that steady progress to establish the economic stability of the United States, it is important for us all to remember that tourism, leisure are very much a part of the job creation agenda for the United States,” Salazar added.
Salazar said the mining ban will protect a "priceless American landscape" that attracts tourists, is sacred to Native Americans, and is a source of drinking water and irrigation. He called the mining ban a "responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations."
The ban, which does not apply to existing mining claims, will prevent new claims on 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres that fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management; and 23,993 acres where surface lands are privately owned but where subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government.
The affected lands, all surrounding the Grand Canyon, are located in Mohave and Coconino Counties of Northern Arizona.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, called the 20-year mining moratorium a "devastating blow to job creation in northern Arizona." McCain was one of 8 U.S. lawmakers criticizing the Obama administration's move.
“This decision is fueled by an emotional public relations campaign pitting the public’s love for the Grand Canyon against a modern form of low-impact mining that occurs many miles from the Canyon walls and in no way impacts the quality of drinking water from the Colorado River," McCain said.
He accused environmental groups of ditching a longstanding compromise that successfully balanced conservation with mining and other commercial activities: "The Administration has shown that it is either careless enough to break this historic agreement or foolish enough to fall for these groups’ alarmist arguments. Either way, the Obama Administration's decision will cost Arizonans more high paying jobs under the false pretense of 'protecting' one of our national treasures, the Grand Canyon," McCain said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said the ban would have "dire consequences for jobs in Utah and Arizona and for our national security.” He accused the administration of kowtowing to radical environmentalists "by doing an end-run around Congress in creating more de-facto wilderness and choking off access to our public lands, even if kills tens of thousands of American jobs in the process.”
Hatch also insisted that mining in areas surrounding the Grand Canyon poses no environmental threat. "I wish I could say today's announcement comes as a surprise but sadly it's just another sign that the Obama Administration is one of the most anti-American energy presidencies in history."
"With 8.5 percent unemployment, we need the good-paying jobs and the energy that America’s uranium producers provide," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). He called the decision to ban new mining "irresponsible."
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said the Obama administration's lands policy lacks common sense: “The American people are desperate for jobs, and our domestic energy industry provides some of the best paying jobs in the western states. However, the President and Interior Secretary Salazar are intent on appeasing their friends in the extreme left wing of the environmentalist movement during an election year by locking up as much land as possible, regardless of the negative effects on our economy."
Lee called it "a needless overreaction to a fictitious problem."
In their statement, the lawmakers noted that the mining moratorium disregards a 1984 compromise with environmental groups that permanently banned uranium exploration on 650,000 acres outside the Grand Canyon. That compromise allowed mining in areas not locked away by the Wilderness Act.
The lawmakers also noted that the Interior Department's own environmental study found "no conclusive evidence" that modern-day mining operations in the area are detrimental to the Grand Canyon watershed.
But Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said the moratorium will give the Interior Department enough time to "monitor the impacts" associated with uranium mining. "It preserves the ability of future decision-makers to make thoughtful decisions about managing this area of national environmental and cultural significance based on the best information available.”
At the National Geographic Society on Monday, Salazar said tourism accounts for 8 million jobs.
When President Barack Obama took office, the unemployment rate stood at 7.8 percent. The unemployment rate peaked at 10.1 percent in October 2009 and has yet to fall below 8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The current unemployment rate as of December 2011 stands at 8.5 percent. When adding in the underemployed, those working part-time but who wish to be fully employed, the number stands at 15.2 percent.