By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration banned new uranium mining claims around the Grand Canyon for the next 20 years, a move hailed by conservationists on Monday as key to the president's environmental legacy but slammed by opponents as a job-killer.
The decision puts more than 1 million acres of public lands outside the Grand Canyon National Park off limits to all hard-rock mining for two decades, the longest moratorium allowed by law. Existing mining operations would continue.
"A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "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 National Mining Association expressed disappointment, but stopped short of announcing an immediate challenge to the decision.
Uranium claims on public land near the national park have risen in line with soaring prices for this mineral, from fewer than 1,000 a year in 2005 to more than 8,000 in 2009, though annual claims have declined slightly since then, according to figures from the Bureau of Land Management.
"One of the things President (Barack)Obama's going to be remembered for is protecting the Grand Canyon," said Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environment Group, a non-profit organization that has pushed for the mining moratorium.
"Despite considerable pushback from the industry and even some in Congress, he didn't punt and he didn't blink and he went and issued the longest moratorium that he could under his executive authority," Danowitz said in a telephone interview.
The Pew group, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, the Center for American Progress and other environmental and progressive groups applauded the decision as protecting the Colorado River watershed, which supplies drinking water for 25 million people.
OPPONENTS CALL IT A 'POWER-GRAB'
Industry groups, typified by the Institute for Energy Research, opposed the decision as a big-government move that will hurt consumers.
"This latest power-grab by federal regulators is another example of the Obama administration's willingness to use ideologically driven energy policies as a means to control the U.S. economy," the institute said after the announcement.
Members of Congress from Western states, including Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, denounced the decision as "a devastating blow to job creation in northern Arizona."
Representative Doc Hastings, a Republican from Washington state who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, accused the administration of "putting politics above American jobs and American energy security."
The main health risk from uranium mining is water contamination.
Grand Canyon tourism generates $687 million in annual revenue, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, and creates more than 12,000 full-time jobs, the University of Northern Arizona said in a 2005 study.
"Do you want mining in the vicinity of a tourist destination that's visited by 5 million people every year?" Danowitz said. "No, I think is the answer."
Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, took issue with the decision and said the Interior Department's own analysis did not show environmental concerns with mining beyond the boundaries of the national park.
Raulston said the association was disappointed in the decision, and said no decision has been made on whether to challenge it. Any challenge would have to be made within 90 days of Salazar's announcement.
(Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Philip Barbara)