It was on a little-used trail in Utah, during one of those collage-age road trips where you think you’re going to discover yourself, that I instead discovered sagebrush. Reaching out an idle hand while walking along the dirt path I let my fingers run over the hip-high plants that dotted my surroundings. Impulsively, I grabbed one of the soft leaves, crushed it, brought it to my nose, and, as I inhaled, was introduced to the fresh and slightly smoky, slightly spicy scent of sagebrush. And though I didn’t know it at the time, I wasn’t alone in that landscape. This was the unique habitat and home to the sage grouse, a chicken-sized bird that is creating a mine-sized controversy.
Trouble is coming in southern Utah for these birds that sound whistles and pops, display a starburst of plumage, and dance for each other during mating season. Alton Coal is proposing an expansion of their coal mining operations, a double whammy of immediate habitat loss plus the longer-term effects of climate change on the ecosystem. In an environmental impact report completed by Alton Coal the company states, “The sage-grouse population and its habitats would be adversely affected in both the short term and long term due to surface coal mining activities on and adjacent to the tract […].”
So the question isn’t whether or not the proposed mine will harm the ecosystem and specifically the sage grouse; the question becomes, is it worth it for coal? Given the current international actions to remedy climate change and our national efforts moving toward clean energy, it seems like a no-brainer. However, others feel differently, including state governments and some residents of other areas affected by sage grouse habitat. Natural resource extraction, stock grazing, and commercial and residential development on open lands all generate income for many states and regulations from the federal level can prevent these activities.
The United States Bureau of Land Management owns the land in question and has put forth efforts to protect it, but they are not complete enough to provide a true haven for the sage grouse. Though once numbering in the millions and now less than 400,000 due to a habitat ravaged by cattle grazing, mining, rail lines, power lines, and suburban development, the US Department of the Interior has concluded that the Sage Grouse are not endangered or threatened. It’s a complicated dance between the states, the feds, interested non-profit and corporate groups, concerned citizens, and, of course, the sage grouse themselves, continuing their complicated dancing all the while.
It would be worth keeping an eye out for the state v. federal question regarding public lands during the upcoming elections, keeping the sage grouse in mind when you vote for your next president or representative. And if you’re interested in learning more and getting involved in the fight for the sage grouse, check out what the Sierra Club, the Sage Grouse Initiative, The Wild Utah Project, The Nature Conservancy, and many more are already doing.
In fighting for the sage grouse we are also fighting for the sagebrush and the intricate ecosystem that goes along with it. It would be a win not only for the birds and plants and people who walk among them but for a future free of fossil fuels.
I can’t say I discovered myself on that road trip. What I did discover was something far more important: the West, and the wilds that remain. We are fighting for the West.