Starry Nights in Danger at Bryce Canyon National Park

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 29, 2012 13

Erosion has shaped Bryce Canyon’s colorful limestone rock into bizarre shapes, including slot canyons, windows, fins and spires called “hoodoos.” ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

America’s national parks give us the rare opportunity to see a star-filled night sky, a window on nature that most of us who live anywhere near a town or developed area have probably never truly witnessed. But even in the wilds of our national parks the experience can sometimes elude us, if the night skies turn cloudy.

Now, however, the potential to view the stars at night may be even more threatened because the national park most famous for its night skiesBryce Canyon National Park—is in danger of losing its stargazing reputation. An open-pit coal mine near Bryce is proposing an expansion that would bring it to within less than 10 miles of the park’s border. Opponents of the expansion say that the lights from such a nearby mine’s nighttime operations and proliferating coal dust fouling the air could obliterate Bryce’s starry night skies altogether.

A proposed expansion would bring coal-mining operations to within less than 10 miles of Bryce Canyon National Park. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Disturbing the peace

Recently, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management tentatively approved leasing more than 3,500 acres of public range land to Alton Coal Development LLC, a group of Florida investors that want to expand their existing coal-mining operation—from 635 acres to 3,576 acres—into public lands close to Bryce Canyon National Park. The company currently operates the Coal Hollow Mine on private property in Kane County, Utah.

The National Park Service says that the existing open-pit mine, on private land about 10 miles from Bryce, is already disrupting the park’s peace. By bringing the mining activity even closer, more noise disruptions would ensue; and toxic coal dust from hundreds of trucks and increased light created by the mining activity would degrade the park even more. The local tourism industry, the main source of employment in the area, fears a great loss of jobs. And Arizona’s Hopi, who consider 119 archaeological sites here as part of their heritage, protest that 81 of them would be partly or completely removed by more extensive mining.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the expansion would harm—or even wipe out—southern populations of the greater sage grouse. This bird has already found itself in the midst of long battles between conservationists, ranchers and energy developers in other parts of the West. Added to this are opponents from several environmental groups who argue that the project will ruin important natural habitats for other native species, such as mule deer. In addition, they say, the mine would release methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. On top of that, burning coal is a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Needing energy

As with most energy issues, however, the matter is complex. The Coal Hollow Mine supplies Los Angeles, California, with at least a quarter of its electricity, and the demand for more is strong. Plus, proponents say, expanding the mine would create about 100 new local jobs in an area that, because of the abundance of public land, are hard to come by.

Utah’s Kane County commissioner has said that while the mine would potentially require pits as deep as 300 feet, those would eventually be filled and ideally reseeded with grasses that would be more beneficial to wildlife and grazing animals than the current scrub oak and pinion pine trees.

I don’t know if our dreams are different when we sleep under the stars, but it’s good to know there’s a place where we can find out. ©Eric Rock

Wanting the stars

No matter how you view the proposed coal-mine expansion, you probably feel that seeing the stars is one of your rights. We yearn for the stars, I think, because our relationship to the night sky is an ancient one. For eons, we have merged our unconscious with the galaxies and constellations as we lay down, roofless, and fell into a primal sort of sleep. The goings on of the night, the sounds of animals, the smells of plants and the view of the infinite is still part of our DNA.

Of course, today we need power and we need jobs. But I sometimes wonder if the either-or status we give to such issues as “open-pit mine or not” is as simple as a question of choosing jobs or dark skies. It may be far more nuanced than that; it may be a question of losing our deepest and oldest dreams.

I really don’t know if our dreams are different when we sleep under the stars. But I do want to know there’s always a place where we can find out.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Drew G. June 6, 2012 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    I am the Chief Ranger at Devils Tower National Monument, Our night skis are threatened by a new mine to be established near the tower and by Oil and Gas development in the area around Gillette WY.

  2. Mark June 3, 2012 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    You’d think the National Park’s mission would extend to the skies above them… But I guess (in a strictly legalistic sense) not. Sad.

  3. John W. June 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    Been there, seen it, inspiring!

  4. Candice Gaukel Andrews May 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks for writing, Teresita. John (above) asked the same question, and I found a few petitions (see above).

    Thanks again.


  5. Teresita Bastides-Heron May 30, 2012 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    Candice, what do you want us to do? Can we send petition to our own representative to try to stop this madness? Please let me know how I can help protecting the Bryce Canyon National Park!

  6. P.T. May 30, 2012 at 4:56 am - Reply

    I hope the proposal does not go ahead for coal mining, on a Canyon trip to see Bryce, Arches, the Grand Canyon and Canyon X I was in awe of nature’s beauty – to disrupt or change this would be catastrophic.

  7. white pine May 29, 2012 at 9:03 pm - Reply

    It should be important to all of us to create a buffer zone around the National Parks we have established. Ecosystems do not end at the park boundary and if the park is to survive, it seems appropriate to preserve some of the surrounding area. I would hate to see all our parks succumb to what has happened at West Yellowstone. From the air it is possible to see where the uncut trees end and observe the building of condos, businesses, resorts abutting the park boundary. Our wild parks will soon look like New York’s Central Park–nice green spots but with no natural systems functioning in a sustainable fashion. Mining of coal is one of the most ecological damaging things we do. I hope we can be smart about where we do it. Damaging a Natl Park is definitely not smart for our sustainable future.

  8. David May 29, 2012 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    Here in Alberta Canada, we are facing the same problems with the Oil and Gas industry encroaching onto our National and Provincial Parks. It has gone as far as effecting the habitat for the well-being of our Bears and other wildlife.

  9. Candice Gaukel Andrews May 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Thanks for writing, John.

    I found a petition here:

    There are probably more that you may find, but these two seem to be major ones regarding the proposed mine expansion near Bryce.

    — C.G.A.

  10. John Daly May 29, 2012 at 10:14 am - Reply


    I was just at Bryce this January.

    Is there a petition or something else we can sign or do to help stop this?



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