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Senate Candidate Mark Kelly On Uranium, Wildfire And Issues Impacting Northern Arizona


Arizona’s U.S. Senate election has emerged as one of the most closely watched, most expensive and consequential of 2020. The outcome could ultimately decide which party controls Congress. Former astronaut and Democratic nominee Mark Kelly is challenging Republican Senator Martha McSally in the race to finish the late John McCain’s term. KNAU reached out to McSally’s campaign but she has not committed to an interview. But KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Kelly about several issues affecting northern Arizona.

Kelly and McSally will hold their only confirmed debate Tue, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. It’ll be broadcast on the news-talk stations of KNAU.

Hear an extended version of Mark Kelly's interview with KNAU.

Ryan Heinsius: There’s recently been a renewed push to open up a million acres near the Grand Canyon for expanded uranium mining. What’s your position on uranium in the area?

Mark Kelly: The Grand Canyon is not only a treasure for our state and our country, but it really is for the planet. And it attracts so many visitors from around the world, so important for tourism. And as I looked at the details of the uranium mine and some of the environmental studies there are a lot of concerns, so I am not in favor of mining uranium around the Grand Canyon. It could potentially pollute the water that the Havasupai rely on and it could have a real strong negative effect on tourism. I think the focus on uranium in our state should be to be cleaning up the 500 formerly used or abandoned uranium mines that are having an outsized negative impact on the health of members of tribes where the uranium mines were placed.

RH: Wildfires in the West are becoming much more frequent and more dangerous, and people here in northern Arizona live with it now as a near-year-round threat. How do you propose addressing forest health and the dangers of increased wildfire?

MK: We’ve been experiencing a drought here across the state for too many years and the estimate and the analysis is that, if you look at the data, it looks that that could continue into the future. So we’ve got to take steps to mitigate the risks of forest fire. The 4FRI project, it’s a 20-year project, the folks up in the Flagstaff area are familiar with this to do some deforestation to clear the underbrush to provide a healthier forest that’ll be less susceptible to forest fire. We’ve just got to get that moving along – 20-year project that’s going to help in millions of acres of forest. It’s been not on hold, but it’s been slow for too long. We’ve just got to get moving on it. That’ll really help to protect the environment in northern Arizona.

RH: Would you support increased budgets to agencies like the Forest Service for increased fire suppression and prevention measures?

MK: Well, we’ve seen some bad forest fires here in our state and across the West, and it is a public health issue, not only from a destruction-of-property standpoint, but from an air-quality standpoint. There are communities that have had to evacuate multiple times over a period of years. So, the Forest Service needs to have the resources to address this issue.

RH: Tribes and conservationists have raised serious concerns about three dam projects proposed on the Little Colorado River on the Navajo Nation. What’s your take on those projects?

MK: I’ve got concerns. I mean, this is on sovereign Navajo tribal land. Some of these lands are sacred for the Hopi as well. There are environmental concerns. Clearly, with the Big Canyon pumped-hydro project you’re talking about flooding miles of canyon that’s sacred to the Navajo. But it also results in some pretty big negative implications, environmental implications. That’ll use a lot of groundwater, so there’s critical groundwater resources that’ll be consumed. It’s going to damage habitats for plants and animals. At the same time, having the ability to store electricity to use at night, like solar­ – one of the ways to do that is with pumped hydro. So there’s got to be a balance. But I’m really concerned especially about the tribal sovereignty issues and the damage to the environment.

Ryan Heinsius was named interim news director and managing editor in January 2024. He joined KNAU's newsroom as an executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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