Facebook Twitter



There's coal all over in them thar hills known as the Turtle Canyon wilderness study area.

But the most attractive deposit - a conservative estimate of 37 million tons - lies concentrated in a 2,300-acre portion of the 28,000-acre Turtle Canyon WSA, located on the west side of the Book Cliffs, about 30 miles southeast of Price.That coal deposit, worth as much as $620 million, could doom the WSA from ever becoming a federally protected wilderness area.

Lee Allison, director of the Utah Geological Survey, however, has an idea: Trade the 2,300 acres of the coal-rich federal land for about 2,000 acres of state school trust lands that are surrounded by the proposed wilderness.

"I think the Turtle Canyon WSA would be acceptable to more people if you could trade those lands out," Allison said. "This would make both sides relatively happy."

Actually, there are four sides: the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, environmentalists, the coal-mining industry and state school officials.

The Turtle Canyon wilderness study area was originally part of the BLM's 1.9 million acre wilderness proposal, but it was dropped in 1991 by former Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan, who said the coal reserves were too rich to be locked up in wilderness.

Last year, environmentalists sued the Department of Interior, which, in response, commissioned an outside review of Lujan's decision. That review determined that the estimates of coal were overstated, so Secretary Bruce Babbitt reversed Lujan's decision and put Turtle Canyon as a wilderness study area.

Babbitt's action irked the mining industry, which would lose hundreds of millions of dollars from potential coal revenues if the coal-rich lands were protected as wilderness. State school officials also would be displeased because they would not be able to make money for education if the state lands were locked inside a wilderness area.

If the school lands inside the WSA are traded for the coal-rich federal lands, then the schools would still benefit from any coal-mining operations.

Such a trade would reduce the Turtle Canyon WSA by about 8 percent," Allison noted, "but it would reduce a lot of the opposition to Turtle Canyon being a WSA, too."

However, environmentalists, knowing that the Babbitt now supports Turtle Canyon for wilderness designation, are unlikely to approve of such a trade.

"I don't see what we have to gain," said Ken Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

In fact, the Utah Wilderness Coalition - comprised of more than 30 public-interest organizations, including SUWA - proposes that the Turtle Canyon WSA be expanded to 36,900 acres. In its 400-page book called "Wilderness At The Edge," the coalition describes the Turtle Canyon area as having "exceptional opportunities for solitude, hunting, and primitive recreation."

Statewide, the coalition is pushing for a 5.7 million-acre wilderness bill.

"We certainly will not agree to whittle away our proposal here and there, if that's what the state is suggesting (with Turtle Canyon)," Rait said.