Earlier this week, fans of America public lands celebrated the biggest conservation bill in a decade, which was passed by the Senate 92-8 on Tuesday and is likely to be approved by the House and signed by the president. Between that and the government funding fight, pushed out of the headlines was the news that the Trump administration has okayed a controversial and long-fought expansion of a coal mine near Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, as well as another coal project in central Utah.
The approval allows the Alton Coal Development operation to mine eight times as much coal in rural Kane County as it’s currently extracting—two million tons a year vs. 250,000. Alton’s Coal Hollow strip mine is located 10 miles from Bryce and 25 miles from Zion National Park, but has been running out of recoverable coal. The Bureau of Land Management decision opens an addition 3,600 acres and 30.8 million tons of coal.
“To increase the scale and size of [coal mining at Alton] is a mind-boggling,” David Nimkin, the National Parks Conservation Association’s Southwest regional director, told the Salt Lake Tribune in July when the BLM released its environmental impact report. “The impact of coal trucks running through a highly dense and special tourist corridor on U.S. Highway 89 and [State Route] 20 [over the Tushar Mountains] and through Panguitch is certainly problematic.”
The government revealed its approval in a release titled “The War on Coal is Over: Interior Announces Historic Coal Projects in Utah,” but market forces are the primary reason coal production is down 35 percent from its 2008 high, not regulation. Yesterday, in a rebuke to Trump, the Tennessee Valley Authority voted to close two struggling coal-burning plants. “It is not about coal. This decision is about economics,” said TVA president and chief executive Bill Johnson.
Economically speaking, coal doesn’t come close to outdoor recreation and tourism—the outdoor recreation industry in Utah dwarfs the energy industry. Coal extracted on public lands in Utah contributes $748 million a year, the Department of Interior says. The Utah Geologic Survey puts the amount at $448 million from federal lands. Outdoor recreation generates $12.3 billion—16 times that of coal extraction. Outdoor recreation supports 110,000 jobs, more than energy (18,000 jobs) and mining (32,000) combined.
BLM says the Alton expansion will directly create 100 new jobs, including 60 new truck-driving jobs. By comparison, Bryce National Park alone is responsible for 3,120 jobs, and spending in the area doubled between 2012 and 2017. Both the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opposed the expansion, expressing concern over negative impacts to air quality, light pollution, sage grouse habitat, and other environment factors, and more than 280,000 public comments were critical of the planned increase.
“American coal jobs matter,” said Acting U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. “Coal production on federal lands provides nearly 40 percent of our nation’s coal. By approving these projects today, we will ensure that these mines are operational for years to come, providing well-paying jobs and affordable energy to the people of Utah.”
Photo of Bryce National Park by Holger Link