Two key federal agencies have recommended that the Interior Department reject a controversial coal lease proposed for an area near Bryce Canyon National Park, arguing it could impair visibility at the park and harm imperiled animals living in the region.
The recommendations by the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service come as the Bureau of Land Management is deciding whether to allow a major expansion of Utah’s Coal Hollow Mine from 635 acres of private land onto a much larger tract of both federal and private land.
Local officials have hailed Alton Coal Development Company’s proposal to mine as much as 49 million tons of coal over the next quarter-century, at the site 10 miles from Bryce Canyon, as a critical way to generate jobs for the community. But a coalition of environmentalists, tribal leaders and some local residents say a major coal-mining operation will impair the area’s natural beauty and air quality, which in turn could hurt its appeal as a tourist attraction.
While it is customary for different agencies to weigh in on proposals by their federal counterparts, it is unusual for two branches of the Interior Department to question the potential action of a third branch in such blunt terms.
Utah BLM State Director Juan Palma said Friday that the agency is assessing comments from the public and other agencies. “We are committed to the safe and responsible development of America’s domestic energy, and we assess the unique factors of each proposal on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
BLM issued a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed lease — which would encompass 2,280 acres of federal land and 1,296 acres of private land — in November. The initial analysis noted that the operation would generate coal needed to help meet the nation’s energy needs , but it also stated that “there would be an adverse impact to recreation, and adverse impacts to sense of community, social well-being, and tourism-related businesses.”
In their written comments, the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Arizona’s Hopi Tribe suggested BLM reject the lease bid. The Environmental Protection Agency also raised concerns and said it was awaiting the release of a supplemental environmental impact statement BLM had agreed to prepare.
“Based on the proximity of the Alton Coal Tract to Bryce Canyon National Park and the combined impact to air resources/air quality related values, night sky resources at the park and in the region, and the park’s natural soundscape,” a Park Service official wrote, the agency “considers large scale coal extraction an activity that could and will likely result in negative impacts to park resources and visitors, and potentially diminish tourism in the area.”
Utah Fish and Wildlife field supervisor Larry Crist wrote that expanded mining activity could cause Alton’s population of greater sage-grouse to disappear, while also harming a separate sage-grouse population to the north, as well as other birds that use the area for wintering habitat. Fish and Wildlife has identified the greater sage-grouse as a species that could be on the endangered-species list if the agency had the funds to list it.
“These extensive losses of sage-grouse brood-rearing and wintering habitat are unacceptable in light of multiple local, state and federal initiatives to conserve greater sage-grouse populations in Utah,” Crist wrote.
Alton Coal did not return multiple calls seeking comment Friday.
Kane County Commissioner Doug Heaton said scaling up the mining operation, which is now slated to extract 2 million tons of coal over three years, would have a “tremendous” economic impact on the community. He noted that while many residents have large families, “none of those children are able to stay in the area because they aren’t able to get jobs.”
Heaton, who lives 11 / 2 miles from the Coal Hollow Mine, said it has had almost no impact on area visibility. “I can’t even see the lights from my house,” he said.
But Bobbi Bryant, who lives nearby on a ranch just outside the town of Panguitch, said she and others are concerned a larger mine operating 24 hours a day would deter visitors.“The number-one basis of the economy is tourism,” she said. Bryant, who said she sells “apparel for the urban cowgirl” as well as espresso drinks and antiques in her store, Bronco Bobbi’s, added: “People come in to see and to experience the night skies, and their clarity and brilliance.”
Research editor Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.