For years, opinions on whether the federal government should allow mining in Arizona’s Grand Canyon fell along party lines: Democrats said it would despoil a national treasure, while Republicans said it would provide good-paying jobs and a U.S.-based fuel source for nuclear reactors.
But Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who is running this year against a primary opponent as well as in the general election against Democrat Mark Kelly, hasn’t made her stance on the issue known.
Neither McSally’s Senate office nor her campaign staff responded to Bloomberg Environment’s requests for comment since the House passed a bill late last month (H.R. 1373) to permanently ban uranium mining and geothermal exploration in and near the Grand Canyon. She also hasn’t spoken to Arizona media outlets about it.
The bill has no companion in the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is unlikely to bring the House bill to the floor.
McSally was appointed in December 2018 to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCain (R) until the November 2020 special election. Local GOP political operatives say she’s in a tough spot of defending her party’s line in what could become a hard-fought election battle.
“The Grand Canyon is about as sacred as you can get out here,” said Chuck Coughlin, president and CEO of HighGround Public Affairs Consultants in Phoenix and former chief of staff to Arizona Gov. Fife Symington (R).
But “to vocalize any opposition [to mining] would raise antipathy with the very right of the Republican party,” Coughlin said.
Arizona isn’t the only state where Democrats are using recently passed public lands bills to pressure Republicans.
In Colorado, former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who is hoping to unseat GOP Sen. Cory Gardner after dropping out of the presidential race, has seized on Gardner’s lack of support for the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act (H.R. 823), passed in the House Oct. 31. The bill would shield about 400,000 acres of Colorado’s Western slope from oil and gas drilling.
Gardner has clarified that he supports public lands in Colorado and isn’t blocking the CORE Act. He didn’t like the “partisan” process by which the legislation—a combination of four bills proposed over the past decade—was created, which he says left Republicans out.
“I would be hard pressed to find a land designation in Colorado that’s been passed through Congress which has been this partisan,” Gardner said in a statement. “It’s a shame that what has historically been a record of working together, across party lines, on public lands issues has gotten this partisan. I will continue to work with my colleagues to bridge the divide in an effort to find a path forward for this legislation.”
The issues with McSally and Gardner highlight how Republicans have de-emphasized access to public lands as a priority, said John Leshy, the top Interior Department attorney in the Clinton administration and professor emeritus at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.
Leshy noted that Republican President Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon, signed a record number of wilderness protection laws during his eight years in office in the 1980s.
“In the historical context, this could end up hurting them in a way that may not have hurt them five or 10 years ago,” Leshy said, referring to both McSally and Gardner.
Arizona Voters Younger, Less Republican
McSally has defended the mining industry broadly, and has received at least $31,500 from mineral extraction interests since 2018, according to the Federal Election Commission.
At Energy Secretary nominee Dan Brouillette’s Nov. 14 Senate hearing, she praised efforts to boost critical minerals like copper, cobalt, and nickel.
“Our mining is certainly something that should be supported if we’re trying to advance green energy, in my view,” McSally said.
She didn’t mention uranium, which feeds the nuclear power plants that the Energy Department oversees.
Mining the Grand Canyon, while supported by Arizona’s House Republicans representing certain parts of the state, is a more difficult sell for statewide office.
“Those voters are younger, less Republican, and more independently minded,” Coughlin said, referring to the general election.
Five ‘Cs’ of Arizona
The Arizona Democratic Party criticized McSally for withholding her views.
“McSally has remained silent on the issue—further proving that she’ll always side with her party and corporate special interest donors instead [of] doing what’s right for Arizonans,” says a blog post on the party’s website.
The Grand Canyon isn’t the only issue on which McSally has drawn attention for not taking an immediate stand. Earlier this year, after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed into law a bill outlawing abortion, McSally told The Washington Post that the matter was “a state issue.” But she later said any law banning abortion must include exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.
Copper mining is deeply ingrained in the state’s history. It’s one of the “five Cs"—with cattle, cotton, citrus, and climate—that served as the backbone of the economy in Arizona’s early days.
But the image of mining in the state is changing as the environmental impacts become more widely reported, said Stewart Goodman, principal at Goodman Schwartz Public Affairs in Phoenix. The battles over groundwater management, pollution, and other effects are balanced against the job potential in a way they haven’t been in the past.
“There’s much more public scrutiny on mining today than there was 20 to 30 years ago,” said Goodman, a former adviser to Gov. Jane Dee Hull (R).
The Grand Canyon region is home to rich uranium reserves. In 2012, the Interior Department placed a 20-year ban on such mining in the canyon. Opponents of the policy sued the Obama administration, but lost in 2017 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the restrictions.
President Donald Trump moved to name uranium a critical mineral for national security purposes in June, sparking concerns from environmentalists that the designation could allow for mining in the Grand Canyon.
59% Oppose Grand Canyon Mining
According to a recent poll of 600 Arizona voters, 59% oppose removing restrictions on uranium mining on public lands near the Grand Canyon, with 40% strongly opposing the removal of those restrictions. The poll was conducted for the Center for Western Priorities, a Colorado conservation group.
McSally is facing at least two primary challengers next August. The frontrunner, businessman Daniel McCarthy, is running to the right of McSally.
“This is yet another example of unconstitutional control of Arizona lands by the Federal government,” McCarthy said in an email. “And in this case it involves tribal land in an economically depressed area that is in desperate need of jobs that these mines provide.”
McSally, who has raised more than $8.5 million to McCarthy’s $122,613, is expected to win the first round. The November election is rated a tossup by the top three political tracking organizations.
Kelly, the Democrat and a former astronaut, vouched his support for the Grand Canyon bill ahead of the Oct. 31 vote on H.R. 1373.
“The Grand Canyon is a treasure not just for Arizona, but from the planet, and we should continue to protect this area from uranium mining,” he said in a statement.