There is so much coal here, the ground has smoked for centuries from spontaneous combustion and the cliff walls have turned scarlet from the heat.
There also is so much wild country here that writers have compared the lonely buttes, boulder-strewn canyons and fractured table lands to the biblical wilderness where Christ went to renounce worldly temptations.
Little wonder that the Kaiparowits Plateau in southern Utah has become the latest political prize in the struggle over what to do with the West’s last great open spaces. With no trails and scant mention in guidebooks, the 1-million-acre Kaiparowits is in the heart of one of the largest wilderness expanses in the lower 48 states. But with an estimated 5 billion to 7 billion tons of clean-burning, high-energy coal, the plateau also holds one of the nation’s most valuable energy supplies.
Nearly 200 miles from the nearest rail line or big city, the Kaiparowits reserves have been too remote to mine profitably. But the construction of a giant coal export depot at the Port of Los Angeles, 550 miles away by rail, is changing the outlook for the coal fields and for the Dutch registered company, Andalex Resources Inc., that holds the mining leases.
Andalex, with the backing of congressional Republicans and most Utah lawmakers, is laying plans for a 50-year underground mining operation that would carve out an industrial basin in a narrow canyon and bring paved roads, utility lines, several buildings, hundreds of people and thousands of trucks deep into the Kaiparowits wilderness.
At the same time, the White House, prodded by influential environmental groups, is trying to decide how best to keep the plateau wild, including a proposal to designate the area a national monument.
Andalex acquired the leases to mine the Kaiparowits 10 years ago, and company officials argue that they cannot be deprived of the right to mine the coal no matter how the federal government chooses to preserve the land. Clinton administration officials disagree.
“Their leases do not confer an unvarnished right to do as they please,” said one administration official who has been looking at ways to protect the Kaiparowits. “The president could declare the area a national monument in order to protect objects of historical, biological or archeological interest. If coal mining put those objects in jeopardy, it could not take place.”
There are already half a dozen national parks and monuments, including the Grand Canyon, in northern Arizona and southern Utah; they cover about 2 million acres and are within half a day’s drive of the Kaiparowits. Much of the remaining land in the region, including the Kaiparowits, is also owned by the federal government under the Bureau of Land Management or other agencies. In Kane County, where the mine would be located, only 5% of the land is in private hands.
Yet the prospect of a vast wilderness preserve across the face of southern Utah’s stunning red rock country has been tempting politicians since the 1930s, when officials of the Roosevelt administration proposed a 4.4-million-acre national park. Now the region has become the focus of fights over how much more Western land should be set aside and put off-limits to commercial activity.
One bill in Congress would set aside 5.7 million acres in southern Utah, including virtually all of the Kaiparowits Plateau, as a wilderness preserve. Utah’s congressional delegation, with support from Western Republicans, has introduced a bill to limit the creation of wilderness areas to about 2 million acres, including about 12% of the Kaiparowits, none of it near the proposed mine site.
The bills highlight the bitterly divisive debate over the future of public lands in the West. One would make an expanse of mountains, desert and river canyons--larger than Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined--off-limits to commercial intrusion.
The Utah-backed measure, on the other hand, would leave plenty of room for new roads, dams, mines, oil and gas wells and real estate development while forbidding the federal government to manage any other land in the state as wilderness beyond the 2 million acres the bill sets aside.
Meanwhile, in Kane County, road crews have to work diligently to keep passable the meandering, frequently flooded dirt road from the tiny town of Big Water, across miles of gray shale hills and up Smokey Hollow canyon to the Kaiparowits mine site.
“It may be wilderness to the handful of backpackers who go across there in the course of a year, but it’s a county road to us,” said Kane County Commissioner Joe Judd. “And when, God willing, the mine goes in, that road will be a lifeline.”
For a rural county with 6,000 people and an annual budget under $3 million, the mine would be a windfall. Andalex Resources promises nearly 1,000 jobs, at least $1 million in annual revenue for the county and $10 million a year in state and federal taxes.
And if the mine’s 22 miles of paved two-lane highway into the Kaiparowits did lead to more industrial development, which environmentalists fear, it would be no big loss, Judd said.
“One canyon looks pretty much like the next. It gets old pretty quick,” he said.
A former resident of Los Angeles, Judd likes to point out that the Kaiparowits is where Hollywood has come to film scenes about the end of the world.
With names like Death Ridge, Last Chance Gulch and Carcass Canyon, the Kaiparowits is a landscape of colossal ruins, of crumbling stone monoliths brooding over a desert floor where nothing much has grown for a millennium. Compared to the intimacy and sculptural detail of much of southern Utah’s canyon country, the Kaiparowits can seem wind-swept, lunar and lifeless.
David Shaver, the project manager for the mine, said surveys done by Andalex biologists found that the canyon surrounding the mine site is “sterile,” “a dead zone,” so dry even snakes shun it.
But a 400-page study of the ecology of southern Utah by a coalition of environmental groups arrived at a very different conclusion. According to the study, the plateau supports 20 types of hawks and eagles, scattered herds of deer and antelope, as well as black bear, bobcat and mountain lion at high elevations.
The same 300-million-year-old sedimentary rocks that contain the coal also hold a wealth of knowledge about the Earth’s past, including abundant fossils of dinosaurs and ancient crocodiles and archeological remains of three prehistoric Indian cultures.
“Out here is the big nothing and the big everything,” said Ken Rait, issues director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, one of several groups hoping to enshrine the Kaiparowits in wilderness protection.
Geologists have known about the Kaiparowits coal field for many years. It’s hard to miss. Besides the smoke rising from a stretch of badlands known as the Burning Hills, black, bituminous seams stripe canyon walls all over the plateau.
In the mid-1970s, a consortium of Arizona and Southern California energy companies announced an ambitious plan to mine the Kaiparowits and build a power plant to burn the coal. But the plan fell victim to a waning domestic coal market.
But in recent years coal from the Southwest has found new markets in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The scheduled completion of the West’s largest coal export facility in Los Angeles next year will allow the port to more than triple its coal exports.
Andalex officials, who are on the board of directors of the company building the $180-million coal depot, estimate that about 50% of the coal mined from the Kaiparowits would be shipped to Pacific Rim nations through the Port of Los Angeles.
“Obviously, the port expansion is an incentive for the Kaiparowits,” said Shaver, the project manager for the mine. “It will handle a lot more coal, bring transportation costs down and allow us to meet the increasing demands of the Asian-Pacific market.”
And with the United States still relying on coal for nearly 60% of its energy needs, Andalex, which operates coal mines in central Utah and Kentucky, expects to have little trouble selling the other half of its Kaiparowits production on the domestic market.
Starting from a single portal in the side of Smokey Hollow, Shaver said, Andalex plans to tunnel its way through miles of bedrock that should yield 2 million to 4 million tons a coal of year into the middle of the next century.
But Shaver said the mine will occupy only about 40 acres above ground and that the coal can be extracted with virtually no impact on the environment.
Standing on Pilot Knob, a small promontory a few miles from the mine site, Shaver waved his arm toward the horizon and to a point, beyond the Burning Hills and the high forested ridge known as 50-Mile Mountain, where the red-tinged Kaiparowits finally faded into the blue haze.
“I believe we can mine here for 50 years and never affect any of this,” he said. “And while we are here, we will be barely noticeable, like a Frisbee on a football field.”
Environmentalists like Ken Rait scoff at the suggestion that a mine that probes 25,000 underground acres--as is proposed--won’t upset the balance of nature.
In modern coal mines, for example, cave-ins are planned events. As the coal is extracted, and the machinery that does the work moves on, the rock and earth above is allowed to collapse. Shaver said any downward shift in the surrounding terrain would be barely noticeable, but Rait warns that such disturbances would wreak havoc with the fragile seeps and springs that wildlife cannot do without in this arid place.
Rait’s main concern, he said, is that such a place as this--where the shriek of raptors and the rumble of summer thunder are the loudest noises one hears--will feel the constant rumble of trucks and look out over a network of service roads and utility corridors.
“It will be like being next to a factory,” he said.