Forget coal — alabaster is where the mining action is on Utah’s former Grand Staircase monument

Environmentalists fear that coal mines loom on the horizon for lands removed from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but the first mineral to be extracted there may have more to do with soul-inspiring art than climate-altering emissions.

Think alabaster, the creamy, translucent rock that is ideal for carving into decorative objects.

Exposed deposits of the delicate form of calcium sulfate happened to be found among the 900,000 acres President Donald Trump removed from the monument. An area known as Butler Valley, south of Henrieville, was actively quarried when President Bill Clinton designated the monument in 1996.

Now David Penney, a sculptor from Beaver, hopes to extract pink-streaked alabaster from one of these abandoned quarries at his Creamsicle mine.

“It creates an art form that people can enjoy for years,” Penney said. “If you don’t take it out of the ground, it just dissolves away. It’s a way to preserve some of the beautiful things nature has created.”

Alabaster quarries, along with coal mining and oil and gas drilling, soon can occur on most of these former monument lands under a management plan released this month by the Bureau of Land Management.

(Photo courtesy of Rusty Galetka) Alabaster mined in southern Utah is famous for its translucent qualities and orange hues.

Environmental and science groups suing to reverse Trump’s action have been preoccupied with vast coal deposits under the monument’s Kaiparowits Plateau, where industry once sought to mine. Many feared the monument reduction was a sop to coal and other fossil energy industries, a way to promote Trump’s “American energy dominance” agenda.

Even though the proposed alabaster quarries would be mom-and-pop operations, whose annual output wouldn’t fill a singe coal truck, Nicole Croft, executive director of Grand Staircase Escalante Partners, remains deeply concerned.

“It’s the precedent suggesting it’s an appropriate use for this landscape, which was set aside for scientific and cultural values,” she said. BLM officials are “totally underestimating the impacts to the land. They said they don’t anticipate any impact to the roads, but these are roads that haven’t been used in 20 years. This landscape is very slow to recover. It’s an invitation for more erosion and more damage.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Trump’s executive orders, signed December 2017 in the Utah Capitol among cheering county commissioners and rural lawmakers, excluded 2 million acres from Utah’s two big national monuments, lands that then could be opened to new mineral leasing and mining claims. For Bears Ears, the president’s action did not result in much change because lands within its former boundaries already were blanketed with mining claims associated with uranium and vanadium deposits.

But the territories stripped from Grand Staircase were a clean slate. All of its old energy leases and mining claims had been retired years earlier. For the first time in more than two decades, people could stake fresh claims there, and Penney and the children of the late quarry operator Paul Lamoreaux, the original king of Utah alabaster, were first in line.

Few alabasters look anything like the translucent orange material found in southern Utah, according to another quarry operator and sculptor, Rusty Galetka, of Cedar City.

(Photo courtesy of Rusty Galetka) Rusty Galetka, a sculptor from Cedar City, quarries alabaster from sites near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

“The mineralization of the gypsum, the coloration and the banding are unique to the state of Utah,” said Galetka, an online wholesaler whose own alabaster claims lie just outside the former monument boundaries. “That stone has been sent worldwide. That’s the highest grade, most valuable. I would call it a gem alabaster. It is one the most beautiful alabasters in the world.”

The deposits inside the former monument are found in veins, whose orange hues come from manganese, running in zigzag patterns resembling tree roots or lightning bolts, according to Galetka.

Penney’s four 20-acre federal mining claims were filed on lands the BLM now calls the “Kanab Escalante Planning Area,” or KEPA. The new management plan — once it takes effect in coming weeks — will authorize development on up to 700,000 acres of those lands.

Croft’s group and others are threatening to sue to block the KEPA plan, as well as those for the lands remaining in the Grand Staircase and Bears Ears monuments, which could throw a monkey wrench into Penney’s plans.

So far, 19 mining claims have been filed on former monument lands, mostly in Butler Valley targeting the alabaster deposits a few miles south of Kodachrome Basin State Park.

“Since it has been previously disturbed, it was a better place to mine,” Penney said. “There is nothing there of scenic value. No one goes there but ranchers. There’s no way you could see it from Kodachrome. It is completely out of sight of the existing roads.”

Many of the nearby claims have been staked by family members associated with Lamoreaux’s Alpine Gems, based in Summit, a tiny town between Cedar City and Parowan on Interstate 15.

The firm’s late founder, Paul Lamoreaux, quarried alabaster at Butler Valley decades ago, selling it to art and stone suppliers, sculptors, universities and numerous schools, according to documents on file with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. Hoping to rebuild their depleted inventory, Lamoreaux’s family members are now seeking state permission to resume mining there, starting with a mine called Berry Patch.

“When Trump created his three divisions [of the original monument], this valley was left out of any piece of the monument, which is why we would be happy to get back our mine, as the stone from it creates a livelihood for not only our family but for the hundreds of professional artists and businesses who rely upon the stone for income,” Lamoreaux’s daughter Laurie Perry wrote in a mine-permit application. “It is unique in all the world for its rare colors and beauty.”

She and her brothers intend to experiment with a new mining process using hand drills and expandable grout, allowing them to extract larger blocks of alabaster without fracturing it into less-usable pieces. Avoiding the use of dynamite would also make reclamation easier.

Penney, meanwhile, has obtained nearly all the permits necessary from the BLM and the state. He just needs to put up a $10,600 reclamation bond and wait for the new management plan to kick in.

Meanwhile, industry has yet to formally express any interest in developing the coal, tar sands, oil and gas that now lie outside the monument, according to BLM spokeswoman Kim Finch. Such deposits of fossil energy cannot be tapped through mining claims but instead go through a leasing process.

The Butler Valley alabaster, found in thick veins running through the Carmel Formation, was historically mined at three sites that produced at least 1,400 tons between 1994 and 2005, according to the Utah Geological Survey. Alabaster wholesales for about $2 dollars a pound, more for larger pieces, so a ton can fetch several thousand dollars.

Galetka believes prices are too low to trigger an alabaster rush anytime soon.

“It’s just very expensive to mine,” he said. “That $2 a pound is probably nowhere near enough.”

Like Galetka, Penney got into quarrying alabaster in search of stone to his liking for sculpting. He holds federal mining claims in Nevada and Arizona, but he stakes his hopes on his Creamsicle mine to revive his gemstone shop in Beaver. His mine permit application indicates he intends to do exploratory excavation over the next two years, removing as much as 125 tons per year.

“I’m trying to carve out a little niche,” he said. So far, he has a leg up on the competition.