WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is rushing to approve a final wave of large-scale mining and energy projects on federal lands, encouraged by investors who want to try to ensure the projects move ahead even after President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
In Arizona, the Forest Service is preparing to sign off on the transfer of federal forestland -- considered sacred by a neighboring American Indian tribe -- to allow construction of one of the nation's largest copper mines.
In Utah, the Interior Department may grant final approval as soon as next week to a team of energy speculators targeting a remote spot in an iconic national wilderness area -- where new energy leasing is currently banned -- so they can start drilling into what they believe is a huge underground supply of helium.
In northern Nevada, the department is close to granting final approval to construct a sprawling open-pit lithium mine on federal land that sits above a prehistoric volcano site.
And in the East, the Forest Service intends to take a key step next month toward allowing a natural gas pipeline to be built through Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia, at one point running underneath the Appalachian Trail.
These projects, and others awaiting action in the remaining weeks of the Trump administration, reflect the intense push by the Interior Department, which controls 480 million acres of public lands, and the Forest Service, which manages another 193 million acres, to find ways to increase domestic energy and mining production, even in the face of intense protests by environmentalists and other activists.
When he takes office Jan. 20, Biden, who has chosen an American Indian -- Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. -- to lead the Interior Department, will still have the ability to reshape, slow or even block certain projects.
Some, like the South Dakota uranium mine, will require further approvals, or face lawsuits seeking to stop them, like the planned helium drilling project in Utah. But others, like the lithium mine in Nevada, will have the final federal permit needed before construction can begin and will be hard for the next administration to stop.
Whether they are the final word or not, the last-minute actions are just the latest evidence of how the far-reaching shift in regulatory policy under President Donald Trump has altered the balance between environmental concerns and business, giving substantial new weight to corporate interests.
"This is a disaster," said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former San Carlos Apache tribal leader who in recent weeks has been camping out at the proposed mine site in Tonto National Forest to protest the pending decision.
Backers of these projects say they are committed to minimizing the effect on public lands, sacred American Indian sites and wildlife.
"Our science-based decisions are legally compliant and based on an extensive process involving input from career subject matter experts and the public," said Richard Packer, an Interior Department spokesperson, adding that the agency "continues to balance safe and responsible natural resource development with conservation of important surface resources."
The administration has been seeking to promote more mining of key minerals -- including uranium, copper and lithium -- to allow the United States to be less dependent on imports.
But the environmental consequences of these projects, if they move ahead as planned, will be considerable.
Last month, the EPA gave its final approval for the construction of a new uranium mine called the Dewey-Burdock project, spread over 12,613 acres near the Black Hills region of South Dakota.
The project would inject a chemical called lixiviant into more than 1,461 wells, sending the chemical into an underground water supply. It would cause uranium trapped in sandstone below the surface to leach into the aquifer, contaminating the water but allowing the uranium to be captured, extracted and transformed into so-called yellow cake that can be used to fuel nuclear power plants.
Nationally, just 174,000 pounds of uranium was produced last year in the United States. The South Dakota project alone could produce as much as 1 million pounds of uranium a year, although it is unclear whether there will ever be sufficient demand to justify production at that level, given that there is already excess capacity at uranium mines in the country.
The Oglala Lakota Nation, whose 2.8 million-acre reservation is adjacent to the proposed mine, has sued to block it. The mine would be built on property that the Sioux tribe has long claimed was illegally taken by the United States.
"The voice of Indigenous people needs to be heard -- and federal Indian policy has made us invisible and dehumanized us," said Kyle White, 34, a member of the Lakota tribe and former director of its natural resources regulatory agency.
A small piece of the project is on Interior Department land. The department has not yet approved the mine and will not act until after Trump leaves office, one of several ways that the Biden administration could slow or block the project.
Azarga Uranium, the Canada-based backer of the project, did not respond to a request for comment.