Mining companies and local residents are awaiting Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s final decision to allow or ban hard rock mining for the next 20 years on approximately one million acres on the Arizona Strip north of Grand Canyon National Park. Surges in the price of uranium from about $10 per pound in 2003, to $50 per pound today are the reason behind more than 5,000 mining claims filed within the past five years. While most mined uranium is used for electricity production in nuclear power plants, it also has numerous industrial uses.
The draft environmental impact statement lists four possible alternatives for the Arizona Strip, including two partial withdrawal scenarios, a complete withdrawal of future claims, or a no-action scenario. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the lead agency, projects a high of $2.9 billion in potential economic value from uranium mining under Alternative A (no withdrawal) and a low of $364.9 million under Alternative B (complete withdrawal).
The impacts of the proposed uranium mining on the Northern Arizona economy are still being debated and already mining interests are questioning the value of the dominant tourism economy. Flagstaff Business News spoke with the American Clean Energy Resources Trust (ACERT), which represents mining companies and citizens in support of mining at the Arizona Strip.
“We came up with figures on a 42-year mining scenario with six mines running at every stage of development – we figured we could provide 1,000 new direct jobs,” said ACERT executive director Pamela Hill. “We’re talking about an enormous economic impact – these small communities depend on tourism and that industry can only furnish jobs six months out of the year – to us, tourism is not the bedrock of an economy; it’s shifting sand.”
Hill has been around the mining industry since the late 1970s when she worked with a company that produced almost 20 million pounds of uranium from seven mines in the Arizona Strip area. According to Hill, “The four to five million visitors who visited the park didn’t even know we were around, and in that time we directly employed 200 people in Northern Arizona and southern Utah…what we stand to lose now is a lot bigger if we can’t mine out here from now on.”
According to Grand Canyon Trust, visitation to the Grand Canyon generates $687 million annually in direct, indirect and induced revenues, and contributes to the creation of more than 290,000 tourism-related jobs in the state. As for the mining sector, the BLM Draft Environmental Impact Statement states that jobs in the mining sector accounted for less than 0.5 percent of area employment in Coconino and Mohave counties between 1990 and 2007.
The debate between mining versus tourism may be too narrow though, according to Dr. Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics, an independent, non-partisan research group based out of Montana. Rasker thinks the true impact of uranium mining will be on Flagstaff’s knowledge-based economy, which lures “footloose” entrepreneurs with environmental amenities such as the Grand Canyon and Sedona.
“One thing we know that has happened in the past three decades is people are flocking to the public lands, but it’s not to mine,” explained Rasker. “The fastest growing counties are in the West – those with a high degree of environmental amenities, access to airports and an educated workforce with a university.”
Rasker is researching the importance of environmental amenities for bringing and retaining professionals such as engineers, software designers and architects to cities. He is finding that this knowledge-based sector is typically underrepresented and clumped broadly in the services sector. Most importantly, impacts on this knowledge-based sector – for example in the form of uranium mining near assets such as the Grand Canyon – have not been given enough attention.
“What are the effects on other sectors of the economy that depend on a high quality of life? And I don’t mean just tourism, I mean people who choose to live in a particular community because of its environmental assets,” said Rasker. “You need to think about the impact not just in environmental terms, but in economic terms.”
These ideas are reflected at the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, says NACET President and CEO Russ Yelton.
“At NACET, we have companies not only in the clean energy and biotechnology areas but have also identified a developing software cluster. This cluster provides jobs that can be remote and allow people to live in a region of the country they find highly desirable. The quality of life is highly important to these entrepreneurs as they usually have multiple choices on where to live.” FBN