Chad Moore - US National Park Service,
Pinnacles National Monument
F. Owen Hoffman - Crater Lake Institute, SENES Oak Ridge, Inc.,
Center for Risk Analysis
David Fields - Tamke-Allan Observatory, Roane State Community
Ron Mastrogiuseppe - President, Crater Lake Institute
from Parkland News, a weekly e-Newsletter of the
National Park Trust
National Parks contain the most splendid parts of this country's
landscape and history. Many of these protected resources were well
recognized at the time the parks were created, for example the geysers
of Yellowstone or the giant trees of Sequoia. But as the interest of the
public changes and the natural landscape is altered, what is valued as a
park resource also changes. Today, the National Park Service is adapting
its management toward the protection of dark night skies.
The night sky is a
timeless and boundless resource, possessing value as a cultural, scenic,
natural and scientific resource. It is germane to no particular nation,
religion, or belief, but is universally important. The impression of a
dark and starry sky has evoked countless myth, art, literature, and
inspiration. It has been rightly called "The Ultimate Cultural
Resource." But the ubiquity and scale of this resource has led to the
common human folly of taking it for granted. Now we stand on the verge
of losing the pristine night sky in the conterminous United States.
Earth at Night
C. Mayhew & R. Simmon (NASA/GSFC),
Man's imprint on the planet is
dramatically visualized with satellite images of the Earth at night
[Sullivan]. The areal extent of light pollution has been modeled by
astronomers, and the result shows the progressive loss of the dark sky,
even in once remote areas [Cinzano et.al.]. National Parks harbor many
of these last portals to a dark night sky. The role the NPS can play has
been underscored by non-profit organizations such as the George Wright
Society and the International Dark-sky Association. In response, the
park service initiated a small but aggressive program to measure light
pollution levels at numerous parks throughout the country.
The proliferation of poor quality
outdoor lighting is the principle threat to the nighttime scene. Urban
sky glow can travel over 200 miles, affecting remote wilderness and
parks. Moderate amounts of light pollution can cut the number of visible
stars in half or more, while skies within a few miles of cities will be
decimated. Not only can one's backcountry camping experience be tainted,
but nocturnal wildlife suffers ill effects to varying degrees. The
problem is far from intractable, however, with modern lighting designs
that produce very little scattered light increasingly available. High
quality lighting improves security, reduces energy consumption, and is
often less expensive. Some communities have chosen to upgrade their
lights, instantly improving the night sky and reaping these other
P. Cinzano, F. Falchi (University of
Padova), C. D. Elvidge (NOAA National Geophysical Data
Center, Boulder). Copyright Royal Astronomical Society.
Reproduced from the Monthly Notices of the RAS by permission
of Blackwell Science.
As the public loses the experience of a
dark sky at their homes, they are increasingly seeking it out in their
national parks. There is an untapped opportunity to interpret the night
sky at parks, provide the public with a tangible perspective on the
connection between people and the environment, and to engender
environmental leadership on this issue.
Amateur astronomers and skygazers can
play a significant role as park volunteers. Chaco Culture National
Historical Park in New Mexico has done this beautifully. A small army of
volunteers give frequent nighttime programs to park visitors, providing
views through numerous telescopes and linking the sky above to the
ancient American culture and stone ruins that are the park's namesake.
In Yosemite, visiting San Francisco
Sidewalk Astronomers encourage public viewings through large and
moderate sized telescopes set up during the evening hours at major
viewpoints. During 2002, the Crater Lake Institute recruited former NPS
naturalists with an interest in astronomy to bring the joy and
inspiration of the night sky to Crater Lake National Park visitors.
At the rim of the famous caldera,
visitors were treated to informal star walks, all night star gazing, and
discovered the "other half" of the park. Other parks, like the Grand
Canyon and Bryce Canyon have become destinations for special "star
parties" where amateur astronomers from all over the country gather to
compare views of the heavens through binoculars and portable telescopes.
The task of promoting the value of dark
skies above National Parks has only just begun. Activities focused on
public enjoyment of dark skies are likely to spread throughout the
entire National Park System. Special programs can be established on an
ongoing basis without a major impact to limited park budgets by forming
partnerships with local and national groups engaged in the study and
enjoyment of the night sky. Amateur and professional astronomers can be
purposefully invited to visit the parks with the express objective of
sharing knowledge and equipment with a curious public.
A positive dark sky experience in our
National Parks, enhanced through interaction with knowledgeable
naturalists of the night, will lead to increasing public awareness of
the joy of gazing upward and a burning desire to protect and reclaim
starry nights beyond park boundaries.