Op-ed: Hatch and Noel are caught up in a coal pipe dream

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

Kudos for transparency to U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch and state Rep. Mike Noel, whose intentions for reducing the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are abundantly clear.

During the 2017 legislative session, Noel drafted a resolution explicitly calling for a reduction to access coal found on the Kaiparowits Plateau. When addressing the state Legislature, Hatch told lawmakers he had discussed the inaccessible coal with President Trump (“inaccessible” due to the monument designation). Later, we learned he urged the president to review monuments designated within the last 21 years, conveniently including Grand Staircase. During Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Utah visit, Noel was front and center showing him coal seams currently within the monument’s boundaries, yet off-limits for extraction. Noel’s bold resolution and Hatch’s influence upon Trump are crucial reminders of the risk Grand Staircase faces.

Hatch and Noel blindly advocate for coal development, regardless of facts and figures showing declining coal production and consumption. As the country transitions toward natural gas and renewable resources, coal is becoming obsolete. A 2017 Utah Foundation study shows our state following the national trend, regardless of Utah’s high dependence on coal. These economic trends are further reflected in other areas where coal is king, as in Appalachia. Cheaper energy has forced the coal industry to shift toward automation, making the process more efficient and cheaper than human labor. Given the decline in coal production and shift to automation, accessing coal on the Kaiparowits would not guarantee jobs.

Attempting to bring back coal neglects to recognize the economic benefits towns reap due to their proximity to protected lands. An oft-quoted, and recently updated, Headwaters study examined 17 communities located near national monuments in the West, including Grand Staircase. Following monument designation, jobs, incomes and property values in these communities increased. It is difficult to directly connect monument designation with such increases, yet it is clear the presence of monuments is not harming communities.

If such studies are not proof enough, the members of the Escalante Boulder Chamber of Commerce are among the most ardent supporters of the monument. Take a look most recently at Zinke’s visit, where numerous business owners spoke at a rally in Kanab. Read their own words, expressed in various opinion pieces in newspapers. They have seen the benefits of monument designation firsthand, and their businesses have flourished.

Relying on the outdoor industry is certainly more sustainable than relying on a finite resource such as coal. When the outdoor industry brings in billions of dollars a year, it seems reckless to even consider harming the landscape — why harm a guaranteed source of income?

Utahns are known for their adaptiveness and innovation. Rather than viewing a shift from coal as a desertion of the industry, our leaders should embrace these qualities. We can appreciate the legacy and economic strength coal has provided Utah while moving toward the future. Towns like Moab and Park City shifted from mining to rely on the outdoor economy. Along the Wasatch Front — known aptly as the “Silicon Slopes” — companies continue to rebrand and diversify the economy to maintain competitiveness. Maintaining Grand Staircase’s pristine condition guarantees the region’s economic anchor in tourism and outdoor industry, while allowing for expansion of other economic venues: contracting jobs to build homes and businesses; developing solar energy; or even encouraging services in the tech or medical fields.

Hatch and Noel are caught up in a coal pipe dream; it would do our state good to maintain its present course with Grand Staircase and continue to diversify the economy in the most sustainable way possible. Grand Staircase deserves to be preserved as it is.

Madison Hayes is content manager for the Alliance for a Better Utah.

Read Trib OpEd here.

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