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Strip Mine Near Bryce Canyon NP Drawing Heat

The Bureau of Land Management is getting an earful over its tentative approval of a lease to Alton Coal Development LLC, a group of Florida investors that want to expand an existing coal mining operation into public lands close to Bryce Canyon National Park.

The existing mine, on private land, is about 10 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, is already disrupting the peace at park, says the National Park Service.  The expansion would bring the noise, dust and light created by the mining activity even closer, degrading the park and hurting tourism.

Joining the NPS in its objection to the expansion is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency, which says the expansion would harm, or even wipe out, the southern populations of the greater sage grouse, a bird that has already found itself in the midst of a long battle between conservationists, ranchers, and energy developers in other parts of the West.

Despite the efforts of a number of environmental groups and although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency has said it needs greater protection, the sage grouse, which lives on the sage-filled high plains throughout the West, has not been granted protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, the Deptartment of the Interior did grant the bird "candidate status" and said agencies need to work to protect the bird's habitat.

The government has seen considerable pressure from lawmakers, ranchers and energy producers to keep the bird off endangered status because of the limitations that would put on energy development and ranching. The BLM has said, in response, that it would work to protect sage grouse habitat in order to help the species population rebound. 

But if it were to grant the mining expansion, opponents say, that would be the exact opposite of protecting the bird.

The agencies submitted their dissaprovals of the mine expansion through comments to the BLM's draft environemental impact statement regarding the expansion. The NPS also questioned the validity of the report.

As with most energy issues, however, this isn't a clean-cut case. The coal mine happens to feed Los Angeles more than a quarter of its electricy, and the demand for more is strong. Plus, expanding the mine would mean more local jobs, say proponents, in an area that, because of the abundance of public land, are hard to come by.

-- Mary Catherine O'Connor

Photo: Courtesy of National Park Service

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