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.

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.

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

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.

Bryce Canyon has long been an important place for many Native American tribes, such as the Hopi. Creation stories for the park’s striking geologic features are still passed on. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

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.

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.

Do our dreams take on a new significance when we sleep under the stars? ©Barton Davis Smith, flickr

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,