ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Interior blocks new mining to protect tortoise in southern Nev.

The Interior Department issued an order today banning new mining on nearly 1 million acres in southern Nevada to protect the desert tortoise and other protected species.

The order blocks new claims for the next 20 years but does not affect existing mine operations. Interior originally proposed the ban in late 2007.

The Bureau of Land Management had already designated the tracts in question as "areas of critical environmental concern," as much of the land forms river corridors that provide habitat for desert tortoises and endangered birds and fish.

The area is also a historic hot spot for gold mining, and U.S. Geological Survey evaluations suggest more mineral deposits remain in the region.

Lisa Belenky, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed several lawsuits against potential desert development to protect the tortoise, said the order adds desperately needed protection.

"This is a very important step to make sure there won't be mining companies coming in to override the protections," Belenky said, adding that the large quantities of mining wastes were incompatible with protecting natural resources.

But Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said putting almost 1 million acres off-limits to new mining ignores larger threats to the tortoise -- oil and gas development, agriculture and natural predators.

"Mining operations have a great deal of successful experience in protecting the desert tortoise," Raulston said. "As such, it seems incongruous to single out mining."

Click here to read the Federal Register notice.

Reporter Noelle Straub contributed.

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