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The Source of Wealth

Utah chooses coal mining over its natural wonders

By Paul Rauber

Dustin Cox, mayor of Alton, Utah, pulls up to the whitewashed town hall in his pickup truck at sunset, towing a hay trailer. The building used to be the town's Latter-day Saints church, until a new, larger one was built next door. Esther, the eldest of his five young daughters, hops out and runs off. Across the street, colts gallop through a field. Cox, a handsome young rancher and hay broker, greets me with a tip of his white cowboy hat and leads me inside.

"People here are very in favor of the mine," he says of the Coal Hollow strip mine just outside town. "The main thing around here is agriculture—ranching, livestock. The point about agriculture and mining is that they create new wealth; it's not redistributed or watered down. If you don't mine it or farm it, you don't have anything. It's the root of civilization."

Alton is the quintessence of southern Utah: rooted in old-time Mormon values of work and piety, and very homogeneous. When I ask how many people live here, Cox hesitates. "I should know this," he says. "I can tell you the ward list—how many people come to church. I think that's about 123. Not much over 130." Cox grew up 20 miles down the road in Orderville, where the pioneer Mormon church sits squat as a bunker, ready to withstand anything nature throws at it. Aside from a couple of rock shops, the only visible business there is a cabinetmaker advertising "Fine Custom Caskets."


Alton Coal wants to stripmine public land near Bryce Canyon National Park and sell the energy to power Los Angeles. At risk are wildlife, the area's tourist economy, and the brilliant night sky that Bryce is famous for. The Bureau of Land Management has yet to complete its final environmental impact statement, but the project is opposed by both the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The decision on whether to allow the company to threaten the park now effectively rests with Ken Salazar, secretary of the Department of the Interior.

You can tell Secretary Salazar to stop this dirty, destructive proposal and to protect Bryce Canyon for future generations.

To Cox, the mine is all about jobs. So far, operating on only 635 acres of private land, it's created a boomlet in town. "Every house here that's available to be rented is rented," he says. "People are coming in—good people, too, good family people. Two young families have been given the opportunity to come back and raise their families in the same place that they were raised."

While we talk, giant double-trailer coal trucks rumble a block away down Alton's main street, bound via the towns of Panguitch and Beaver for the 1,800-megawatt Intermountain Power Project near Delta, halfway to Salt Lake City. I count seven trucks in the span of 15 minutes.

"People in Alton understand that you don't have electricity if there's no coal-fired power plant to get it to you," Cox says. "The further people get away from it—not raising their own food, not cutting their own firewood—they get disconnected: 'Where does the heat come from?' Well, it's right from our backyard."

Some small portion of the power from the Delta plant may reach Alton. Three-quarters of it, however, leaves the Beehive State, travels across Nevada, and keeps the lights blazing in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and Riverside, California.

The Coal Hollow mine is only a couple of miles south of Alton, in a valley flanked by low hills of pinon pine, scrub oak, and sage. Towering above it to the east is a high wall of redrock, the geological signature of southern Utah. Ten miles beyond that is Bryce Canyon National Park, and 30 miles to the west lies Zion. From the public land adjacent to the mine, you can see enormous earthmovers hauling away the overburden, deep scars where the ore is being dug, and neat pyramids of coal ready for shipping.

The mine opened in the fall of 2011. Its operating permit, which had been languishing in the state's Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining, was approved in 2009, following a $10,000 contribution from Alton Coal Development to the campaign of Utah governor Gary Herbert. The same day the check was cashed, Herbert met privately with representatives from the coal company; within a month the permit was approved. (The Sierra Club and other groups contested the permit process; the complaint is now before the Utah Supreme Court.)

"New sightseeing opportunites would be created through the viewing of mine operations," a BLM report said.

As strip mines go, Coal Hollow is not (at present) very big. Arch Coal's Black Thunder mine in Wyoming, for instance, is more than 50 times larger, covering 33,800 acres. Soon after the permit for the private-land portion of Coal Hollow was approved, Alton Coal applied to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to greatly expand the mine onto surrounding BLM land. Theoretically, the BLM should be a tougher sell than Utah's Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining. The National Environmental Policy Act—signed into law by noted treehugger Richard M. Nixon in 1970—charges the federal agency with evaluating various alternatives (including doing nothing) based on their environmental and economic impacts.

This the agency is in the process of doing, though apparently with a thumb on the scales in favor of mining. Retired Forest Service employee Roger Hoverman, who attended a BLM presentation in Cedar City, called it "a rolling commercial" for the expansion. A similar presentation was held in Panguitch, attended by local motel owner Grant Olenslager. "I felt like I was at the wedding reception of people who got married 20 years ago," he says. "It's a done deal—I'm just here to shake your hand and have the cake."

To no one's surprise, the BLM's November 2011 draft environmental impact statement named maximal development of the Coal Hollow mine as its "preferred option." If approved in the final environmental impact statement, this would mean the federal government would lease some 3,500 acres to the mine, from which roughly 2 million tons of coal per year would be extracted over a period of 25 years. It would be the first coal strip mine on federal land in the state.

In recommending the expansion, the BLM brushed aside the most serious concerns posed by mine opponents. One is the effect of around-the-clock mining on the crystalline visibility of the southern Utah sky. That's a particular concern to Jeff Bradybaugh, superintendent at Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce "is very much a visual experience," he says—both at close range, for the famously fantastical hoodoo rock formations just below the canyon's rim, and long distance, for the top-of-the-world perspective across the Colorado Plateau. "That's of tremendous value," he says. "Clear air and a window to the night sky—the quality of not having light pollution."

The BLM insists that any reduction in visibility at Bryce from Alton Coal's mining operations would be minimal. But the National Park Service disagrees, which is why it has taken the rare step of recommending that the Interior Department reject the mine expansion.
To lots of folks in southern Utah, a degraded visitor experience at Bryce is more than an aesthetic issue. Each year, 1.3 million tourists visit Bryce, accounting for $108 million in visitor spending, or 60 percent of the economic activity in Garfield County. Bobbi Bryant depends on some of those visitors shopping at Bronco Bobbi's, her boutique in Panguitch that sells "urban cowgirl apparel" and espresso drinks.

"No matter how you look at it, there's nothing positive about this mine," she says. "This coal is dirty, it's polluting, it's hazardous to tourist traffic, and it's providing power to Los Angeles and not to us. What it takes from everyone who lives here, you will never get that back." Bryant swipes her finger on the outside sill of her shop's front window, and it comes up black with coal dust from the uncovered trucks that pass through Panguitch every nine minutes.

Already, a motel owner in nearby Hatch is trying to sell his place because of complaints ("Cute cabins but a lot of road noise") on a popular travel website. Grant Olenslager and his wife, LaRetta, worry that they might have to sell their Purple Sage motel in Panguitch if the truck traffic increases. "All of us put our life savings into our businesses," LaRetta says. "And for what?"

Here's how the BLM, in its draft environmental impact statement, responded to worries about the mine's effect on tourism: "There would be an adverse impact to recreation and adverse impacts to sense of community social well being and tourism related businesses." The agency offered no quantification of potential economic damages to one of the area's biggest industries. It did, however, see a potential silver lining: "New sightseeing recreational opportunities would be created under this alternative through the viewing of mine operations." The theory, apparently, is that the revenue lost from folks put off by double-trailer coal trucks roaring past their motel rooms all night might be balanced by increased visitation from those who enjoy seeing a strip mine in action.

The BLM is similarly sanguine about the survival prospects for the southernmost population of sage grouse in the country. This beautiful, ground-dwelling bird is known for the elaborate courtship dances the males perform on fixed "strutting grounds," or "leks"—one of which would be gobbled up by the mine's expansion. The BLM admits this could be bad for the birds: "Development of the coal mine could result in the short-term or long-term displacement or loss of the local population." Grouse numbers around Alton have already been falling for the past three years. Last year—when mining began—not a single bird was seen at the lek.

Sage grouse seem to have an unfortunate predilection for landscapes overlying deposits of fossil fuels. Their numbers are declining in Wyoming and elsewhere because of oil and gas development, making them prime candidates for membership on the endangered-species list. Since sage grouse are widely distributed throughout the West, such a listing would bring many developments to a screeching halt. In January, the online publication Mineweb quoted Nevada BLM director Amy Lueders's warning to the industry: "If you keep doing what you've been doing [on public lands,] the bird will be listed."

The Utah office of the BLM, however, asserts that "the Alton sage-grouse population is unusually tolerant of human disturbance" and recommends the stripmining of the bird's favorite strutting site. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disagrees and has joined the Park Service in recommending that the mine expansion be rejected.

What the BLM, Governor Herbert, Mayor Cox, and other mine supporters are hanging their hats on is—in a word—jobs. According to the BLM's analysis, the expanded mine would employ 100 additional miners and 60 additional truckers. There is no corresponding estimate of the number of recreation jobs that might be lost. "No irreversible commitments of recreation resources are expected as a result of the mining activity," the agency asserts.

The local power structure appears to value traditional blue-collar jobs like ranching, mining, and trucking over tourism jobs, despite the fact that tourism accounts for the lion's share of economic activity in the area. "We have this mind-set in Garfield County that whatever open land there is should belong to the people and they should be able to use it or abuse it in any way they want," says Panguitch's Bobbi Bryant.

For their part, mine proponents focus on the higher wages of resource extraction: "Garfield County is second to last in terms of median income in the whole state. Such is the nature of a low-paying, seasonal based economy," county economic development manager Justin Fischer argues in the Garfield County Insider. "Without providing better paying jobs, families will leave, and Panguitch will wither and die. It has been suggested that such is the aim of certain individuals, to push out the families and make Panguitch a quaint retirement community."

Motel owners Grant and LaRetta Olenslager and others in the tourism business confirm that it's often difficult to fill service-industry jobs. "People who grew up here think that tourism is a four-letter word, and they don't want to work in the tourism business," Grant says. "They want 'real' jobs."

It's not a new debate in Utah. In 2007, the Salt Lake Tribune looked at recreation versus resource extraction, paraphrasing Mark Knold, now chief economist for the state's Department of Workforces Services: "The question for those pushing economic development is whether to keep the land clean and entice more people to move here or to continue with 'an old industrialized structure and maybe not be able to employ as many people.'"

Garfield County's Fischer is firmly in the latter camp: "There may be some exceptions, but generally those who oppose the mine are people who have moved to Panguitch to retire, while those who support the mine are native to the area," he writes in the Insider. "In the end, the complaints against the mine are from people who generally have theirs, and don't care if anyone else can achieve that for which they have hungered for a very long time."

Bryant, the Olenslagers, and other local mine opponents object to being portrayed as wealthy "move-ins." "It would be much easier not to say anything," Bryant responds. "But we are not that kind of people. We feel like we're fighting for the benefit of all of us, not just for a select few."

The next step is for the BLM to digest the slams it has taken from the Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the 210,000 signatories to a Sierra Club petition opposing the mine, and to come up with a final environmental impact statement. Should the BLM continue to support expansion of Coal Hollow, the issue will almost certainly go to court, and the final decision will be made far from insulated, homogeneous southern Utah.

On my last night in Utah, I drive into Bryce, to Inspiration Point. As Superintendent Bradybaugh explained, the park's perch on a high plateau above a flat horizon exaggerates the dome of heaven. And, as I find out on this frigid evening, the crystalline air at 8,100 feet sharpens the light of the myriad stars—whose number the park has tallied: You can see 7,500 of them from Bryce, three times as many as from most other parts of rural America.

Shivering beneath these brilliant suns, I'm reminded of what Mayor Cox said: "You don't have electricity if there's no coal-fired power plant to get it to you." Yet several people I talked to mentioned their awe at encountering SolarReserve's enormous new project near Tonopah, Nevada: a 653-foot tower that will soak up the reflected rays of 10,000 giant mirrors, heating molten salt to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to supply 110 megawatts of power. The project is employing 600 people during construction and 45 thereafter—"real" jobs by anyone's measure. New wealth is not only wrested from the earth; it shines on us as well.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra. He blogs at Sierra Daily and tweets @paulrauber.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

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