The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill Monday to encourage a power company to relinquish its strip-mining lease at Alton Coal Field near Bryce Canyon National Park.
Under the Bryce Canyon Enhancement Bill, sponsored by the entire Utah delegation, the Nevada Electric Investment Co. would be reimbursed up to $5 million for giving up its Alton leases. The bill was introduced by Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, and significantly amended by Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah.Nevada Electric Investment, a subsidiary of Nevada Power Co., has owned strip-mine leases at Alton since the early 1970s.
During Jimmy Carter's presidency, then-Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus ruled that strip mining would be an eyesore to Bryce visitors, particularly those admiring the scenery from the Yovimpa Overlook. He excluded large portions of the field from development.
Nevada Electric Investment's leases are in the Alton Field, in areas not designated as unsuitable by Andrus. But opponents of the project say mining even there would have an adverse effect on Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.
In urging passage of the bill, Rep. J. Rahall, D-W.Va., said by extinguishing the Alton leases, the government could "eliminate a major threat to the integrity of Bryce Canyon National Park."
The bill requires the Interior Department to conduct a competitive coal-lease sale in Manti-La Sal National Forest. The power subsidiary would be given an incentive to bid on the new lease, which would be adjacent to a coal mine in Emery County that the company owns.
Whatever Nevada Electric bids, the government will underwrite by $5 million, assuming Nevada Electric is the high bidder and that the bill becomes law.
In order to get the lease, Nevada Electric will have to relinquish its Alton leases. The land at Alton then would be withdrawn from further coal activities.
Half of the money from the successful bid would be deposited into the federal government's Land and Water Conservation Fund. The rest, including the $5 million chipped in by Congress, would go to the state of Utah and Kane and Garfield counties.
The counties' funds would partially compensate them for the economic loss stemming from the ban on developing the coal resources.
Nevada Electric Investment holds leases on 18,473 acres south of Bryce, with estimated coal reserves of 236 million tons. The leases to be offered in Manti-La Sal National Forest are for 7,500 acres with 40 million tons.
Cindy Shogan, the Washington representative for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said, "We're pleased by this action. It certainly took a piece of national legislation to protect this national treasure," referring to Bryce Canyon National Park.
However, no companion Senate bill has been introduced, she said.
Nielson called it a "win-win" situation for Nevada Electric Investment to trade leases.