Star light, star bright, where are you tonight?

  • Haze from sodium vapor lights in Phoenix are visible 75 miles away

    Jerry Lodriguss
 

Growing up in Canyonlands National Park in the 1940s and '50s, Alan Wilson often took camping trips into remote areas of Utah with his father, Bates Wilson, Canyonlands' first superintendent. "The sky was absolutely brilliant at night," Alan Wilson recalls.

Last summer, Wilson returned to Canyonlands. Instead of finding a stark, black sky filled with a spectacular display of stars, he saw an orange glow along the horizon, eating away at the night sky.

Blame it on urban sprawl. As towns and cities continue to spread, their lights are polluting the crisp night sky - and national parks are not immune.

"The night sky is a natural resource just like any of the natural resources we typically think about. It's an intricate part of the park experience," says Mark Peterson of the National Parks and Conservation Association.

A recent NPCA survey reveals that more than two-thirds of the West's National Park Service managers in parks where overnight stays are permitted, say light pollution is a problem at their respective park or monument.

In 1991, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park took action, retrofitting all light fixtures with reflecting shields and motion sensors. Today, New Mexico's Chaco Canyon is famed for its night sky viewing; it also saves 30 percent a month on the lighting bill (HCN, 1/18/99).

Yet even if the parks and monuments protect their night sky, cities' light pollution remains. At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, the haze of city lights reaches up to 30 degrees above the horizon.

Larry Gamble of Rocky Mountain National Park says he is working with Estes Park, a gateway town at the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, advising city officials on light-sensitive development. But he adds, "The park has absolutely no authority beyond the park boundaries."

Some cities, often led by local astronomers, have already acted. Tucson, Ariz., has the strictest lighting codes in the country, designed primarily to protect nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory. New Mexico recently passed the Night Sky Protection Act, which puts new rules on outdoor lighting.

Alan Wilson says people just don't know what they're missing. Indeed, the NPCA estimates only 10 percent of the nation's population can see the Milky Way.

"My father was worried about this long, long ago, and it's happening," Wilson said. "The question now is: How are we going to stop it?"

The writer reports from Denver, Colo.

You can ...

* Visit the International Dark-Sky Association Web site at www.darksky.org/ for general information;

* Contact Dave Simon, NPCA, 823 Gold Ave. SW, Albuquerque, NM 87102 (505/247-1221).

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