The Sciences

Protecting America’s Last Dark Skies

Few stargazing sites deliver like America’s national parks. But even these places are under threat.

By Eric BetzApr 18, 2017 12:00 PM
Grand Canyon officials hope to preserve the region’s natural lightscape for centuries to come. (Credit: Harun Mehmedinovic/skyglowproject.com)

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A smattering of crisp, white clouds lingers west of Grand Canyon National Park. And as the desert sun sets, smoke from a far-off fire turns the sky as red as the surrounding Supai sandstone. Venus slowly emerges from behind the clouds like a beacon of the night. Jupiter and the evening star push toward the horizon, racing the crescent moon in a perfect isosceles triangle. Their setting leaves an inky black sky bustling with activity. Faint stray meteors streak at zenith, and satellites crawl across the sky like ants on their ardent paths.

If you sat here on a moonless night like this and counted through until dawn, you could tally thousands of stars.

“The place you are in is special — keep that in your mind — in contrast to the places that most of us live,” says International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) astronomer John Barentine, who manages the Dark-Sky Places Program. “Every human being once shared this experience of looking up into the night sky and seeing it filled with stars.”

Before the spread of electricity, humans across the planet knew the stories written in the skies. Sitting around smoldering campfires, people looked to the stars and relived the tales of their heroes. Now these experiences are confined to star sanctuaries like Grand Canyon National Park.

In 2016, while the nation celebrated a century since the inception of the National Park Service, the agency recommitted itself to protecting a resource overlooked by many in America — the night sky.

Forgotten Heroes

And, as a crowd builds in a darkened parking lot near Grand Canyon’s Mather Point, the talk here turns to the greatest of those ancient heroes — Hercules. Barentine is guiding a group of parkgoers on a tour of the night sky. “Imagine with me that there is the body of a man who’s kneeling,” Barentine says as he sketches the figure on the sky in green laser. “His body is this set of four stars here that’s sometimes called The Keystone.”

(Credit: Tyler Nordgren)

As part of his 12 labors of penance, Barentine explains, Hercules was forced to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides. To get them, our Greek hero — the illegitimate son of Zeus — adventured in search of Hera’s secret garden and killed the dragon that guarded them. That serpent is now commemorated in the constellation Draco the Dragon, placed next to Hercules in the night sky. 

“The human brain saw patterns in those stars. And we translated all of our human hopes and our fears and our dreams and our worries onto those stars,” says Barentine. “The natural night sky inspires.

“We are losing this thing — ‘the night’ — that has been our common shared experience for so much of the history of humanity,” he adds.

Humans themselves are the cause. Light pollution from streetlights, structures, parking lots, billboards, and more now spreads by 6 percent each year. As a result, these common stories from our past have faded like the constellations that cradled them.

A Grand Star Party

But not on this night. Not here. The National Park Service has shut off the visitor center lights for the annual Grand Canyon Star Party. Red LED ropes guide park visitors from telescope to telescope through the parking lot, where some 50 amateurs have their instruments open to the public.

“Ask questions. Take any telescope you like and ask them what they’re looking at,” the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association’s Jim O’Connor tells a standing-room-only crowd at the visitor center auditorium. “We’re going to interpret the night sky for you.”

Each year, the Tucson astronomy club partners with the Park Service to host eight nights of public observing near the South Rim’s Mather Point. It’s the best-attended special event that the Canyon hosts.

Enthusiastic volunteers bring their telescopes from all over the country to camp together and share their love of the stars with visitors from all over the world. The Saguaro Astronomy Club of Phoenix hosts a simultaneous star party at the remote North Rim Lodge.

In both instances, tourists come to see the Grand Canyon and find themselves looking through an eyepiece at the heavens. Unlike most star parties with a dedicated core of amateur astronomer attendees, this one brings in more than 1,000 members of the public each night. Many travelers revel in the park’s skies every other night of the year. The Grand Canyon and other major American national parks have set attendance records in recent years.

The Last Refuge

“There are not many places you can go in the lower 48 United States that are relatively easy to get to where you can see this,” Barentine says. “A typical night at Grand Canyon, if the moon is down, if you’re there late into the night, will be filled with thousands of stars.”

The public lands that shelter the last of our wild places now also give refuge to our celestial heritage. Most Americans have never seen the Milky Way — the nebulous and star-rich center of our galaxy. And within a decade, scientists expect that Americans will have to make pilgrimages to one of just three significant dark patches to see the Milky Way in all its wonder. These refuges consist of the deserts of eastern Oregon/western Idaho, western Utah/northeastern Nevada, and the Colorado Plateau — the 100,000 square miles of high elevation desert surrounding the Grand Canyon.

Revelers watch the sunset during the annular eclipse at Grand Canyon National Park in 2012. (Credit: Eric Betz)

To protect the last of these sites, the National Park Service has established its Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative. It’s an attempt to rally state and federal agencies, along with local tribes, communities, businesses, and citizens, to the dark-sky cause. This community support network recognizes the popularity of Southwest skies and their importance as a tourism draw, as well as an environmental necessity. And already their movement has helped forward discussions on what to do about errant visitors center lights and streetlights, as well as encroaching oil and gas development.

Over the past decade, sites like Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, and, most recently, Canyonlands National Park, have been named Dark-Sky Parks, which increases their profile as stargazing destinations. The attention helps protect the natural lightscape, too.

Flipping the Switch 

But light pollution is creeping into even these places. At the Grand Canyon, skyglow washes in from Las Vegas and Phoenix — hundreds of miles away. The enemies of the night are also now approaching the gates. Every visitor to the Grand Canyon South Rim’s main entrance must pass through the tiny town of Tusayan. And an Italian developer, the Stilo Development Group, recently tried — and has so far failed — to seize on this and build shopping malls, tract homes, high-end boutiques, and even a dude ranch just off Highway 64.

Light pollution (brighter colors) from Phoenix and Las Vegas spreads to Grand Canyon National Park’s night skies. (Credit: Eric Betz)

To the east, another developer is pushing a controversial plan to build a gondola to the bottom of the Grand Canyon near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers — a site where the Hopi tribe believes their ancestors originated.

Such developments could capitalize on the nearly 5 million visitors who travel to the Grand Canyon each year. But they would also strain the already scarce water supplies and wash out some of the faintest stars cherished by those who travel to the parks to reconnect to the natural world.

The Park Service opposes the developments at its door. And it’s now tackling the developments within its borders as well.

“We’re trying to improve the dark skies here in Grand Canyon National Park,” says park ranger Marker Marshall. “We’ve got a lot of light fixtures that are very old and are not as dark-sky friendly as they could be.”

Park officials have developed a plan with help from the IDA. And the Grand Canyon has applied for provisional IDA Dark-Sky Park status — the gold standard for any stargazing destination. 

But the task ahead is monumental. Thousands of old lights at the South Rim had to be cataloged and analyzed, with hundreds more several hours away at the North Rim. To achieve full dark-sky status, the park will have to actually fix the offending lights.

(Credit: Suomi NPP Satellite/NASA Earth Observatory)

Most luminaries on the replacement list would be a familiar nuisance to any skygazer. But the canyon also operates remote trading posts and campgrounds far below the rim, like Indian Gardens and Roaring Springs.

“We have inventoried a little over 5,000 fixtures — everything from porch lights to floodlights on big buildings,” says the now former Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga. The change will play out one lightbulb at a time. The Park Service is now looking at how to treat each one — shielding the lights that need shielding and buying new lamps where necessary.

And even switching off a light isn’t always easy. Desert View Watchtower, designed by famed architect Mary Colter, is one of the most iconic park buildings. From its perch, the 70-foot-tall stone structure looks all the way down to the Colorado River — a rarity at the South Rim. That profile recently prompted river runners to complain about an errant light left on.

“The electrician went up there and they couldn’t find a way to turn it off, so they went into the electrical panel box, and it was wired in. It didn’t even have a switch,” Uberuaga says. Ultimately, the park is pushing to retrofit all offending lights and achieve a full dark-sky designation by the Grand Canyon’s own centennial in 2019.

A Preserve Like No Other 

Susan Schroeder is CEO of the Grand Canyon Association, the park’s non-profit partner in fundraising. She says her group aims to gather about $1 million to complete the retrofits and add ranger-led interpretive programs about dark skies. The money also will pay for an astronomers’ campground at Mather Point, one of the most popular sites in the entire park system. The grounds will cater to dark-sky enthusiasts and their telescopes.

So far, one generous amateur astronomer has covered much of the cost. Joe Orr was a member of both the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association and the Grand Canyon Association.

He donated a large part of his wealth to protect dark skies at the park, and his passionate programs on the subject inspired others to give money as well.

Orr died recently, but he left some money in trust to help with the Grand Canyon retrofits. And last year’s star party was named in his honor.

“That anchor initial amount really got us launched,” Uberuaga says. 

Already the undertaking at Grand Canyon is tougher than any previous dark-sky effort. So far, most IDA parks have been small.

With no nearby cities, Utah’s Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, situated just north of the Grand Canyon, has some of America’s darkest skies. (Credit: Harun Mehmedinovic/skyglowproject.com)

They’re often in remote places with little nearby development and relatively few visitors. Those parks never had a lot of lighting to begin with. In contrast, the Grand Canyon had nearly 5 million visitors in 2015. And it’s also home to a town of park workers.

“This is really in many respects unlike any Dark-Sky Park application we’ve dealt with before,” says Barentine.

And the herculean effort is even more remarkable because it comes at a time when Grand Canyon National Park is already facing a multibillion-dollar backlog in maintenance work to repair leaky water supply pipes and antiquated infrastructure. Other National Park Service sites face similar problems.

Dark Skies for All Parks

But if funding allows, the standards developed at Grand Canyon will be rolled out across the parks system. Anyone with an iPad can now theoretically go out into the field and catalog lights, creating an actionable database.

“They would like to get to a model where essentially almost every national park unit short of the ones that are in urban settings would qualify to become a Dark-Sky Park under the IDA program because they’ve put a standard set of policies in place,” Barentine says. “They would standardize the application process to the IDA.”

That could help protect these dark-sky sanctuaries in perpetuity. Even remote-sounding national parks like Rocky Mountain and Joshua Tree have seen light pollution encroach from nearby cities. The problems now also include Alaska’s remote North Slope and the desolate Bakken region centered in North Dakota. The boom in oil production has created jobs in the previously unpopulated region. And that new residential and commercial infrastructure is bringing new lights near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The impact is most obvious when seen from space. NASA photos show how the Bakken region became one of the brightest regions in the West in just a few short years. Its skyglow rivals that of large metropolitan areas. The same is true of shale oil fields in Texas.

“The place you are in is special, but it shouldn’t be in a sense,” Barentine says to a group of skywatchers standing near Mather Point. “Of course, the Grand Canyon is great and we can’t reproduce it everywhere on Earth, but the night sky over the Grand Canyon is something that we can bring back if we so choose to do that.”  


Eric Betz, a former associate editor at Astronomy, is an associate editor at Discover.

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