Ah, the wild, wild west. Home of wide open prairies, imposing mountain ranges and mysterious deserts. Sadly, the west is also home to a growing problem with outdoor lighting at night, which causes a problem for stargazers. Lights that stay on throughout the night and are directed toward the sky cause what is called light pollution. Light pollution can make stargazing impossible, which is why dark skies need to be preserved.
Bigger metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver are, of course, going to create the most light pollution. However, it is a problem even in places that one would not suspect, for instance, the oil fields of North Dakota and Alaska. Both states are in general rural places and great for stargazers, but the oil producing areas of Bakken in North Dakota and North Slope in Alaska give the coastal cities of California a bit of competition.
Due to light pollution, a full two-thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their backyards anymore. Circadian rhythms are disrupted and birds are confused by it. Light pollution also points to an embarrassing waste of energy. Not only that, but there have been links found between light pollution and the suppression of melatonin production, which is a hormone that helps a body fight cancer.
To help preserve stargazing as an activity, and the natural wonder that is the night sky, the International Dark Sky Association, a non-profit out of Tuscon, Arizona, is taking some inventive steps. One of those is to invite parks, preserves and towns to apply to become official Dark Sky Places. In 2001, the very first Dark Sky Place was declared in Flagstaff, Arizona. Since then, over two dozen places worldwide have been granted the distinction. The western states have eight Dark Sky Places for stargazers. According to the managing director at the Dark Sky Association, Scott Kardel, two national parks are actively applying, Grand Canyon and Glacier. He added that there are plenty of sites in Alaska, Utah and the northern region of the Rockies which are eligible.
In order to be deemed an official Dark Sky Place, locations should meet the brightness and glare metrics criteria. There is also an expectation that there should be committed volunteers or residents who will work to preserve their night skies via codes, education and ordinances. The eight official Dark Sky Places in the west are listed below:
- Borrego Springs, California has a population of 3,429 people. They were the second place to receive the honor of being an official Dark Sky Place. The residents and local businesses have contributed by installing motion-sensor lighting and redirecting outdoor lighting. There has also been an educational program for the public.
- Death Valley National Park in California is considered to be one of the best spots on the planet to watch lunar eclipses and meteor showers. This is due to the arid climate, clean air and horizons that seem to have no end. Ninety-one percent of Death Valley’s 3.4 million acre park is wilderness, and development is prohibited.
- Flagstaff, Arizona is proud of their dim city. Early on the municipality adopted rigorous lighting codes. With a population of 67,000, they were the first to be designated a Dark Sky Place. Now, stargazers move there partially because of this reputation.
- Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona is on the northwest edge of the Grand Canyon. The monument received its certification in March. It is the first BLM-managed site to be recognized as a Dark Sky Place.
- Goldendale Observatory State Park, Washington is home to one of the largest public-access telescopes in the country. It is a small state park of five acres, but is a two hour drive from Portland, Oregon. It is one of the best spots for stargazing within a short distance from a major city.
- Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah has the distinction of becoming the first Dark Sky Park in 2007. A writer of a nomination letter described the feeling of standing by one of the archeological sites at the park and gazing up, imaging another person from another century doing the same. The views of the Milky Way from this place are said to be spellbinding.
- Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico was designated only last year. Ninety-nine percent of the place has no outdoor lighting installed. An inventory of conditions was made and is used by rangers as a baseline for an ongoing monitoring program.
- Clayton Lake State Park, New Mexico is often visited by nearby schools. The rolling grasslands are touted as an attraction and local hotels promote the area for its quality dark sky tourism.
The value of a night of stargazing is immeasurable. Thanks to the Dark Sky Association, many important dark places will be preserved for the stargazers of the future.
by Stacy Lamy