The National Park Service says an expanded Alton coal mine will hurt Bryce Canyon's views and tourism, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it likely will wipe out the southern Utah area's sage grouse population.
Those are among skeptical government comments submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as it completes its environmental review of a plan to expand the Coal Hollow Mine from private land onto BLM-held tracts about 10 miles southwest of the park.
The Park Service, in a letter dated Jan. 26 from its regional office in Denver, recommends no mining on the public lands because of air pollution likely to taint daytime views and brilliant night skies that draw tourists. The Fish and Wildlife Service, in a letter from its Utah field office dated Jan. 27, says the likely demise of the Alton sage grouse population which has two breeding grounds near the proposed mine seems to violate a state conservation plan and the BLM's local management plan.
"It makes clear that the project is going to have a lot of hurdles in order to see these lands offered for lease," Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance attorney Steve Bloch said of the combined federal responses.
"It could be a mine killer unless the BLM comes up with another [option]," Sierra Club organizing representative Tim Wagner said. "I don't know how they can mitigate the loss of the bird."
Sage grouse are not listed as endangered, though the Fish and Wildlife Service has said such a listing would be warranted if it had the funds to do so.
The BLM will this winter issue new grouse guidelines protecting critical habitat including breeding leks.
Meanwhile, Kane County officials have reiterated their support for the project. The County Commission said in a news release that the mine will create at least 240 jobs and provide $1.5 billion in economic benefits to Garfield and Kane counties over 30 years.
They accused environmentalists of trying to convince the public that the mine borders on the park, when in fact it's not visible from there.
"The bottom line is this project will be good for Alton and Kane County," said commissioner Doug Heaton, an Alton resident.
The BLM's Color Country District planner, Keith Rigtrup, had no immediate response to the other agencies but said his team will review the comments and resolve any conflicts before making a final decision. The Environmental Protection Agency has raised concerns about air and water pollution and asked the BLM for a supplemental environmental study, effectively reopening the more public comments and review. Rigtrup said his agency continues to discuss that option or other resolutions with EPA officials.
Panguitch resident Bobbi Bryant, an outspoken mine opponent because of the potential effects to tourism and truck traffic, said the scrutiny gives her hope.
"It was nice to see the National Park Service come out and say it's a problem," she said.