A Precious Resource: The Night Sky

It’s that time of the year again; the time of the year when I spent over 4 hours sitting on a flight from Utah to Philadelphia as I travel home to see my family for the holiday season. I, like most people who travel often, have certain habits associated with flying. For one, I try not to start conversations with my fellow passengers as sleeping is my favorite way to pass the time when in the air.  Additionally, I always read the in-flight magazine during landing and while taxiing to the jet bridge.  During our descent into Philly this evening, I found a small blurb in the airline’s magazine about star-gazing and the best places around the world for this night-dependent activity.  On the list was a location close to home – Natural Bridges National Monument. Not only was Natural Bridges on the list, but it was recently named the world’s first International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (the IDA).

Owachomo Bridge (from National Geographic Photo of the Day)

The IDA’s mission is to preserve the nighttime environment by encouraging the adoption of responsible outdoor lighting.  The IDA was founded in 1988 and since then, they have been fighting light pollution around the world.  The IDA’s International Dark Sky Parks Program was initiated as a way to honor public lands which make night sky preservation an restoration a focus.  The International Dark Sky Parks “exemplify public land management of our nocturnal resources.”   Natural Bridges National Monument was named the World’s First International Dark Sky Park in 2007 after a lengthy and rigorous application process (the application document itself is 52 pages long, and was submitted early in 2006).

View of the world at night

Natural Bridges National Monument is a small park located in south eastern Utah and was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt.  This national monument was actually the first park to be established in Utah.  The designation of the park was to preserve three natural, sandstone bridges that can be found with it’s boundaries.  However, managers at Natural Bridges have realized that their park protects not only beautiful sandstone structures but also almost perfect nightsky. A survey done by the National Park Service found that Natural Bridges National Monument is one of the darkest national parks in the country.  Since then, Natural Bridges has prided itself on the preservation of “natural lightscapes” in the park.

So just how dark is Natural Bridges? The International Dark-Sky Association measures dark on a scale from 1 to 10; with 1 being the darkest and 10 being an area with the most light pollution (I imagine Times Square when I think of a 10 on this scale).  Natural Bridges National Monument was rated a 2 by the IDA.  Natural Bridges is found in a remote area of the country but it also actively manages for a natural lightscape by modifying their outdoor lighting and using compact 13-watt compact fluorescent bulbs throughout the park.  Additionally, the park offers night sky interpretative ranger programs throughout the summer to educate visitors about astronomy and the importance of preserving the night sky.

Night Sky in Glacier National Park (low end of light pollution scale) and light pollution reflecting off of clouds in Berlin (high end of light pollution scale). Photo from Glacier by Ray Stinson and photo from Berlin by Christopher Kyba; used under creative commons license.

Natural Bridges is not the only Park Service unit to focus on night sky concerns. The National Park Service has an entire department delegated to protecting the night sky for future generations. Established in 1999, the Night Sky Team of the NPS conducts research related to natural lightscapes around the US in various NPS units.  The Night Sky program at the NPS also ensures that visitors are provided opportunities to enjoy the night sky through ranger led programs such as nocturnal wildlife viewing and night-hikes.

The National Park Service is charged with conserving scenery for the enjoyment of future generations and until recently the NPS may have forgotten about the scenery that appears after the sun has gone down. However, the establishment of a NPS unit as the first International Dark Sky Park is a very good sign. It appears as if the NPS has now realized how valuable a resource darkness really is and has established ways in which natural lightscapes can be managed.

Natural Lightscape at Death Valley National Park

References:

The International Dark-Sky Association

Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument IDA Application

The National Park Service Night Sky Program

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