The Arizona Strip Wilderness Act — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! [1]           | Home |

Passed and signed into law on August 28, 1984 as Public Law 98-406, the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act was, at the time, thought to have once and for all addressed any and all questions of wilderness and conservation on the Arizona Strip in northern Arizona. The Arizona Wilderness Act specifically recognized the uranium potential of over one half million acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service lands in northern Arizona by releasing them from wilderness classification so they could be explored and mined. With overwhelmingly strong bipartisan support from all factions across the entire political spectrum, Congress had finally spoken and clearly defined the disposition of public lands in northern Arizona. Most believed that the years of controversy and debate, as well as the uncertainty and constant reevaluation, were over.

In the ensuing years, uranium mining activities on these lands have produced millions and millions of pounds of critically needed uranium ore as well an impressive record of operation and successful reclamation without ever adversely impacting the environment or the adjacent National Park. In conjunction with a staggering myriad of state and federal laws, policies, rules and regulations requiring that mining activities on all federal lands minimize, prevent or mitigate any and all environmental impacts, the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act has served the people of the United States admirably; far better than most legislation.

Flash forward to July, 2009.
Using inaccurate, outdated, unrelated, often downright fabricated "arguments" as well as more than a little "in your face" chutzpah, environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Grand Canyon Trust (GCT) and the Sierra Club (keep them in mind because their name pops up later) pressured the then new Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to withdraw almost one million acres of land in northern Arizona from any and all mining activities so as "to protect the Grand Canyon watershed from adverse effects of locatable hard rock mineral exploration and mining."

In the time honored tradition of bureaucracies everywhere in the world, Secretary Salazar ordered a two year evaluation and study period to determine if a total moratorium on exploration and mining on the Arizona Strip should be imposed. Like spoiled children who want what they want when they want it and will not take "no" for an answer, these environmental groups had finally cried "wolf" long enough for someone to take their insistent bellowing seriously. It mattered little that there was and is no wolf; that their "arguments" were at best hollow, at worst just plain lies. They wanted the whole cake and they wanted to eat it too. They had finally gone through their long lists of pseudo arguments and grievances until they hit upon one that might possibly undo a generation of law that actually worked.

What's wrong with this picture?
Is the basic and fundamental democratic spirit of consensus based upon reasonable compromise too wacky an idea to be embraced by those living in the 21st century? Is a willingness to compromise where compromise is reasonable an alien concept? Was the overwhelmingly strong bipartisan support for the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act, even by those at opposite ends of the political spectrum—including legendary icons such as ultra conservationist Mo Udall and ultra conservative Barry Goldwater—too bizarre to be believed a generation later? Was the entire 98th Congress befuddled when they passed the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act? Were the 1980s representatives of the Sierra Club (remember them?), Audubon Society, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Society and National Parks and Conservation Association—who helped hammer out the agreement that directly led to the legislation—placed under a voodoo spell conjured up by the mining companies, local and state cattlemen's associations, local businesses, civic groups, and local, state and federal governmental and regulatory agencies who they negotiated with?

The fact of the matter is that the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act was and still is considered a groundbreaking piece of conservation legislation. It has already served the country very well for a generation and can do so for many more. Quite simply, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.[1] And history has proven that the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act ain't broke.

How did all this come about?
In 1869, as one-armed Civil War veteran and geology professor John Wesley Powell led his expedition of discovery through the then unknown realm of the Grand Canyon, one member of his team wrote in his journal that “the whole country is utterly worthless to anybody for any purpose whatever unless it should be the artist in search of wildly grand scenery, or the geologist, as there is a great open book for him all the way."

Being one of the most spectacular examples of erosion in the world, the almost textbook sequence of ancient rocks that are exposed in the walls of the Grand Canyon provide an unparalleled multi-million year record of the geologic history of the North American continent. This is part of the reason why the Grand Canyon itself was afforded Federal protection, first as a Forest Reserve, later as a National Monument and, finally in 1919, as a National Park.

Little more than 110 years after Powell first mapped the canyon, there was literally nobody who thought the federally owned and managed lands adjacent to the north of the Grand Canyon National Park—that had come to be known as the Arizona Strip—were ”utterly worthless to anybody for any purpose whatever."

By the early 1980s, numerous competing interests including ranchers, loggers, miners, conservationists, tourism and recreation companies, and federal, state and local government officials were at loggerheads over these lands and their status or non status as wilderness areas.

There was great uncertainty about exactly what could be done and exactly where on the Arizona Strip’s almost five million acres it could or could not be done. To do anything there required long and extensive private wilderness studies as well as those accomplished by either the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the U.S. Forest Service—the two federal agencies charged with managing the federally controlled lands on the Arizona Strip. It seemed to many as if the wheel had to constantly be reinvented, again and again and again, ultimately, to the detriment of both private endeavors and the U.S. taxpayer.

For many commercial enterprises which required large capital investments, this uncertainty became untenable. Enter a relatively small Denver-based uranium mining company called Energy Fuels Nuclear who knew the Arizona Strip well. They thought that it was well worth the effort to approach various environmental groups to determine if, in fact, wilderness issues could be resolved through negotiation and compromise rather than confrontation and conflict. They had looked to the very fundamental foundation of our democratic society, the spirit of consensus based upon reasonable compromise.

Independently, Energy Fuels took it upon themselves to meet with representatives of the environmental community including the Sierra Club (remember them?), Audubon Society, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Society, and the National Parks and Conservation Association to see if there was a chance at arriving at a consensus. Initially, skepticism prevailed in the environmental community but there was also a sincere willingness to give negotiations a chance to come to fruition.

After several months, numerous meetings, conferences and hours of negotiations, a tentative agreement in principle was reached regarding which specific areas of the Arizona Strip should be included in the National Wilderness Preservation System and which areas should be left open to multiple use. Both sides held strong convictions about certain specific areas but the willingness of all to compromise where compromise was reasonable led to a tentative agreement on specific boundaries. In this democratic spirit of compromise, nobody walked away with everything they wanted but, at long last with reasonable compromise, an actual map could be drawn.

After this tentative agreement was reached, Energy Fuels went forward to obtain the further input, approval and agreement of other industries, organizations, individuals and groups with their own interests on the Arizona Strip. An intensive series of presentations, meetings and consultations were held with other mining companies, local and state cattlemen’s associations, timber interests, local businesses, civic groups, and local state and federal governmental and regulatory agencies toward the end of reaching agreement among the widest possible cross section of stake holders and concerned parties. As a result of this new input, some new adjustments and compromises were made and eventually the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act was introduced in both Houses of Congress.

When it was signed into law, the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act added approximately 285,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and 102,000 U.S. Forest Service lands to the National Wilderness Preservation System, essentially protecting these lands forever. At the same time, it released 490,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and 50,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service lands to multiple use, including mineral exploration and mining.

At the time, it was thought that the questions of wilderness and conservation on the Arizona Strip were finally decided “once and for all," thereby ending years of controversy, debate and conflict together with uncertainty and constant reevaluation. It was also thought that the groundbreaking Arizona Strip Wilderness Act encapsulated a consensus of opinion from the widest possible range of constituents—including opposing ends of the political spectrum—and that Congress had finally clearly and definitively defined the disposition of all public lands on the Arizona Strip.

So yet again, is the basic and fundamental democratic spirit of consensus based upon reasonable compromise too wacky an idea to be embraced by those living in the 21st century? Is a willingness to compromise where compromise is reasonable an alien concept? Was the overwhelmingly strong bipartisan support for the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act, even by those at opposite ends of the political spectrum—including legendary icons such as ultra conservationist Mo Udall and ultra conservative Barry Goldwater—too bizarre to be believed a generation later? Was the entire 98th Congress befuddled when they passed the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act? Were the 1980s representatives of the Sierra Club (remember them?), Audubon Society, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Society and National Parks and Conservation Association—who helped hammer out the agreement that directly led to the legislation—placed under a voodoo spell conjured up by the mining companies, local and state cattlemen's associations, local businesses, civic groups, and local, state and federal governmental and regulatory agencies who they negotiated with?

The fact of the matter is that the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act was and still is considered a groundbreaking piece of conservation legislation. It has already served the country very well for a generation and can do so for many more. Quite simply, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. [1] And history has proven that the Arizona Strip Wilderness Act ain't broke.

[1] This folksy and deliberately ungrammatical idiomatic expression dates only from the about the mid-1970s but has increasingly come to summarize the sentiments of much of the American public when it comes to how they feel about the role of the federal government in their daily lives. “Don’t meddle with something that’s working” or “leave well enough alone” just don’t seem to pack the same punch.

 
Copyright ©2010-2011 American Clean Energy Resources Trust - ACERT. All rights reserved.