Energy development equals light pollution for our precious night skies

Stars over Arches National Park (Utah).

Credit: kedar datta, flickr.

National parks and other protected lands are great refuges for dark night skies, but these qualities are increasingly threatened by development.

Though some of us grapple with a fear of the dark in our formative years, many Americans don’t truly know the meaning of the term.

With cities growing and outdoor lighting still largely inefficient, light pollution has obscured clear night skies for more people than ever before, especially in the eastern U.S. By one estimate, 80 percent of kids born in America today will never witness a night sky clear enough to see the Milky Way, illustrating a problem that is due to become more pronounced over the next decade. Additionally, a surplus of light at night may be bad for us, not to mention wildlife.

Enter national parks and other public lands, many blessedly far from population centers and shielded from too much human interference. These are some of the best places to stargaze, and people appreciate it: A 2015 study found that an unobstructed view of the night sky is an important feature for national park visitors and generally improves their experience.

Activity: Plan a stargazing trip in the wild

And while the U.S. is dotted with bustling cities, we also have some of the best places to escape and scope out the cosmos.

"By one estimate, 80% of kids born today will never witness a night sky clear enough to see the Milky Way"

Fewer than 30 spots worldwide have met the requirements to become association-certified “International Dark Sky Parks,” but 21 of them are in American parks, including notable wildlands like Death Valley National Park (California/Nevada), Canyonlands National Park (Utah), Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado) and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument (Arizona).

How views of the night sky differ between the inner city and a site like a national park. Credit: stellarium.org.

Development turns off the dark

Unfortunately, even some redoubts of clear night skies are at risk thanks to encroaching development.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota) is one such place--a rugged wildland once prized for its starry vistas but now fundamentally changed by energy intrusion. No oil development is allowed within the park itself, but just beyond its borders, oil rigs and natural gas flares create an orange glow that diminishes the brilliant night skies. This is neither an effect that our 26th president would recognize, nor, one imagines, that he would approve of (as the man himself said, "Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies…”)

Watch: Development impacts Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s night skies

New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park, site of some of the most significant archaeological examples of pre-Columbian culture, is another. In recent years, this International Dark Sky Park’s beauty and tranquility has been threatened by oil and gas development on adjacent land. Sure enough, this could include the little-mentioned scourge of light pollution.

The good news is that light pollution is increasingly acknowledged as a problem. In the last 25 years, the National Park Service has become more attuned to its effects, to the point that the agency now includes a goal of “protecting natural darkness as a precious resource and creat[ing] a model for dark sky protection” among official directives for its 100th anniversary in 2016. Recently, the National Park Service helped create America’s first Dark Sky Cooperative on the Colorado Plateau. Some nations and U.S. states have enacted regulations to reduce light pollution, and advocates have been working on model lighting ordinances and practical tips for using light more effectively.

Working to keep the night clear

The Wilderness Society is working with land agencies as they revise their planning to include consideration of the importance of night skies and the need to protect them from oil and gas development and other threats.

Our ongoing efforts to protect wildlands affect the skies above them, as well. Just as we work to protect unique places for current and future generations, we are dedicated to preserving this dwindling resource that connects us with something primal and magical.

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