“What are they thinking?!”

I said this to myself as I unwrapped the voluminous Draft Environmental Impact Statement from yesterday’s mail. Here was the document the Bureau of Land Management prepared in order to “analyze” the leasing of 3,700 acres of public lands for a strip coal mine, right on the doorstep of Bryce Canyon National Park. It was hundreds of pages, but it couldn’t explain my questions.

Questions such as, why on God’s green earth do we need another coal mine? And why put it in a remote corner of southwest Utah so close to so many special places and resources?

Is this another attempt by the Obama administration to appease the Utah delegation and House Republicans? Could someone in the administration really believe approving an irresponsible mine here, outside of Bryce Canyon National Park, means the president can say “no” somewhere else? Haven’t we learned the hard way that that’s not how it works?

Despite a balanced approach to energy development that has yielded near-record levels of oil and gas production in Utah, the opposition maintains the same drumbeat: “Obama always says no. Obama is crushing Utah’s economy.” Memo to the president: appeasement doesn’t work. Yet here was the DEIS, with a laundry list of terrible sacrifices he seems willing to accept:

• “Increased ambient noise, short term modifications to visual resources and perceptible increase in nighttime glow would occur from implementation of either action alternative.”

• “Archeological sites eligible for the National Register would be adversely impacted… due to surface disturbing activities associated with mining operations. . . . The Panguitch National Historic District and Utah Heritage Highway 89/Mormon Pioneer Heritage Area (US-89) would be subject to adverse effects for the life of the mine. . . . Sites that are not directly impacted by surface mining or facilities construction would be subject to a greater degree of threat of vandalism, looting etc. due to an increased human presence in the area.”

• “It is anticipated that a large number of significant fossils would be destroyed or removed from context . . .”

• “There would be an adverse impact to recreation and adverse impacts to sense of community, social well being and tourism related businesses. There would be impacts to population, housing, public health, safety and environmental justice populations.”

• “Direct and indirect impacts . . . would include habitat fragmentation, alteration, loss and displacement due to surface disturbance, noise, ground vibration, night lighting, and increased risk of vehicle mortality associated with coal-haul trucks.”

The “Alton Coal Tract Leasing by Application DEIS” was prepared at the behest of a privately held coal company with out-of-state owners looking to expand an already bad idea onto nearby public lands. Alton Coal received approval in late 2009 from the state of Utah to mine roughly 600 acres of private lands and minerals. SUWA, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Parks Conservation Association have challenged that approval and our case is before the Utah Supreme Court.

In the meantime, mining operations there have already started and coal trucks rumble constantly through the gateway community of Panguitch, heading 110 miles to Cedar City, Utah. If the mine expansion is approved, BLM estimated an impact of 153 truck round trips per day, 24 hours a day, 6 days a week, for the next 25 years.

Bottom line: Utah will suffer if this lease is sold and development is approved. The coal mined – even after 25 years – will be absolutely insignificant on a national scale, but the damage to Bryce Canyon National Park and the businesses and lives built up around the park, its clean air, clean water and dark night skies, the Paunsaugant Plateau’s trophy mule deer herd, sage grouse leks, and countless other species and habitats will be significant and long lasting. The most telling admission in the DEIS’s executive summary is this: “There would be an adverse impact to recreation and adverse impacts to sense of community [and] social well being …”

So what can we do? Harkening back to the Bush administration, the BLM has scheduled the public comment period for this real stinker to be over both Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year’s, wrapping up on January 6, 2012. Several public hearings will be held, including one in Salt Lake City on December 7. All the dates and places are listed here: www.blm.gov/ut/st/en/info/newsroom/2011/november/kanab_blm_to_host.html.

Stay tuned to SUWA tweets and updates for more information on how you can get involved.