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Federal biologists say a strip mine at the backdoor to Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park will wipe out the southernmost population of sage grouse, even as their agency resists a broader effort to protect the bird across the West.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is among three federal agencies that have registered opposition to the lease of 3,500 acres of public range land sought by a coal mine that got its start on 440 acres of private land. The mining is under way about a dozen miles from a corner of Bryce Canyon National Park, a high plateau of southern Utah prized for its clean air, wildlife and sparking night skies.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has set the stage for a group of Florida investors known as Alton Coal Development LLC to expand onto the surrounding public range lands. The BLM tentatively approved a lease sale open to all bidders last fall. The project's draft environmental study has drawn opposition in recent weeks from the Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Although the Fish & Wildlife Service doesn't have the staff or money to seek broader protections for the sage grouse, "our goal is to protect existing populations," said Amy Defreese, an agency ecologist based in Salt Lake City. Officials said other candidate species rank higher for protection. That position was upheld Friday by a federal judge who dismissed a lawsuit brought by environmental groups seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the ground-foraging bird.
The National Park Service objects to the dust, nighttime lights and machinery noise of around-the-clock mining in an area so quiet that measuring devices fail to register natural sounds.
The Park Service and BLM have clashed before in Utah, home to five national parks and several monuments. In 2008, the final year of the Bush administration, the Park Service complained it was ignored when the BLM sold oil-and-gas drilling leases near Canyonlands National Park. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar later rescinded those leases and ordered his squabbling agencies to make peace.
"At times we may have different views on a project, and this is one of them," said Denis Davis, the Utah coordinator for the Park Service, who was reluctant to use the word "tension" to describe the agencies' relationship.
"We fully understand the BLM's multiple-use mission," Davis said. "They're going to be involved in a number of projects that impact the parks."
The lights from coal mining around Alton will appear significantly brighter than the planet Venus from Cedar Breaks National Monument, about 25 miles away, the Park Service says in a letter of objection filed recently with the BLM.
The lights will throw off insect-eating bats, officials said, by "altering forage behavior" and displacing bat roosts.
"Blasting operations, as well as some haul truck noise, will likely be audible from Bryce Canyon's south end and possibly other areas of the park," the Park Service said. "The wildlife road kill expected from over a million truck loads over the length of the haul route, especially at dusk and dawn, may be unacceptable."
Arizona's Hopi Indian tribe said it considers 119 archaeological sites in the proposed coal tract part of its heritage and that 81 of them would be partly or completely removed by mining.
The EPA also filed objections, saying the coal mining would muddy local creeks and release methane, a greenhouse gas the EPA says is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The BLM says a final decision on leasing the coal tract will take months longer.
Utah officials favor the project. Local officials say it will create at least 240 jobs and provide $1.5 billion in economic benefits to Garfield and Kane counties over 30 years.