See the stars at Cedar Breaks, Utah’s newest dark-sky park

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Milky Way over Cedar Breaks. Photo by Zach Schierl

From the rim of Cedar Breaks National Monument on clear, moon-less nights, around 5,000 stars can be seen above this deep-red geological amphitheater.

On a recent tour, Dave Sorensen, one of the park’s “dark rangers,” described how the forces of erosion have hollowed out the iron-rich sediments left by Lake Claron.

“Since the lake has been gone this area we know as Cedar Breaks has been eroding out for the last 20 million years. It erodes at a rate of 1 to 4 feet a century. To a geologist, that’s a very rapid rate,” Sorensen said. “Cedar Breaks will continue getting larger and large as times go by.”

In the very short-term, the star-encrusted view above could also erode as the forces of urbanization bring more artificial light to the Cedar Valley. To raise awareness of one of nature’s greatest displays, Cedar Breaks has been designated an International Dark Sky Park, the seventh in Utah to win this honor. Park officials invite the public to a star-gazing celebration Saturday night at Brian Head Ski Resort, which has partnered with Cedar Breaks on astronomy events in the winter when the town is humming with activity while the park is snowbound.

“It’s something everybody enjoys,” said Brian Head owner John Grissinger. “For city people, you can’t see the stars. You don’t know it. Everybody here is amazed, but if you don’t bring awareness people don’t understand the importance of protecting dark skies. There is very little of it left.”

Aside from the light emitted from flames, darkness was the norm at night for most of humanity’s existence. But in the 137 years since electric light bulbs hit the market, artificial lighting has become so invasive that it is now considered “pollution.” Today, about 80 percent of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way from their homes thanks to the luminous glow hanging over every city.

In the past decade, the value of dark skies have gained more recognition, which the Tuscon, Ariz.-based International Dark-Sky Association has been promoting with designations and lighting technologies that use spectra that minimize disruption to the darkness and direct light away from the sky.

President Barack Obama called out dark skies in his Dec. 28 proclamation setting aside Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County.

“The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon. Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view,” states the proclamation. But this celebration of starry views did not impress Utah legislative leaders, who cited Obama’s references to seemingly ubiquitous phenomenon, such as skunks, soil and stars, to back their claim the monument designation was not warranted. San Juan County leaders rejected a proposal to apply for designation as a dark-sky community, fearing that it would pave the way for unwanted restrictions on lighting.

But plenty of others believe dark skies are a precious resource and are trying to figure how to restore it, along with our ability to wonder and solve entrenched problems vexing the world today, according to University of Utah metropolitan planning professor Stephen Goldsmith.

“One of the crises of our time is a crisis of imagination. We used to look up and ask, ‘Who am I?’ Instead of looking up, we’re looking down at our phones, looking for constellations in our apps. Preserving the dark skies allows us to reconnect with our Milky Way,” said Goldsmith, who co-directs the U.’s new Consortium for Dark Sky Studies with physics professor Dave Kieda.

Cedar Breaks now joins six other Utah parks that are official Dark Sky Parks. The others are Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monument, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks, Goblin and Dead Horse Point state parks, and Weber County’s North Fork Park. Many others have applications pending.

The IDA confers three tiers of certification–gold, silver and bronze–depending on the darkness of its night skies. Cedar Breaks won the silver, while its sister Utah monument Natural Bridges, located in the new Bears Ears National Monument, earned the world’s first Dark Sky Park honor with a gold in 2007.

The Colorado Plateau is at the very heart of what Goldsmith calls the Starry Way, the Interior West’s mountainous region running through Utah where light pollution is the least pervasive thanks to remoteness and high elevation.

“Ninety percent is public land, it’s high and dry, low population. You couldn’t make a more perfect recipe for dark skies,” said Bettymaya Foott, coordinator for the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative. She has written dark-sky designation applications for a dozen Utah state parks, many of them on the Wasatch Back close to urban centers.

A few years ago, Cedar Breaks climbed aboard the dark-sky bandwagon and began offering weekly star-gazing events.

“Our mission is to preserve the natural and cultural resources and we realize that the night sky that an increasing number of people are coming to national parks specifically to see. It’s getting harder to see in other places,” said Zach Schierl, Cedar Breaks dark-sky coordinator. “A lot of people are seeking out dark skies when they go on vacations and they are coming here to southern Utah. A lot are experiencing a sky darker than they’ve ever seen before. It has a really powerful impact.”

Schierl developed Cedar Breaks’ “Master Astronomer” program that he is currently teaching at Southern Utah University and hopes to expand around the state. The summertime programs he leads have grown in popularity, now drawing between 200 and 300 park visitors.

At 10,000 feet above sea level, the Markagunt Plateau is the top step of the Grand Staircase, the landscape that falls away to the southeast and bottoms out in the Grand Canyon. Eroding from the Markagunt’s top layer, Cedar Breaks forms the leading edge of the Colorado Plateau where it meets the Great Basin. It is sculpted from the same lakebed deposits that produced Bryce Canyon’s famed hoodoos, towers and walls to the east.

Looking up, Dave Sorensen’s favorite astronomical feature visible from Cedar Breaks is a deep-sky object called M42, or also known as the Orion Nebula, found in the constellation named for the mythical hunter Orion. This cluster of nascent stars and luminous gases can be found in the hunter’s sword hanging from the southside of his familiar three-star belt.

Preserving such views is central to the National Park Service’s mission, but the agency can’t accomplished that goal on its own, according to Goldsmith. Nearby cities have a role to play. Utah park gateway towns of Torrey and Springdale have already enacted lighting ordinances to protect dark skies, while Moab and Page, Ariz. have ordinances in the works. Cedar City is beginning to consider steps to curb stray lighting.

Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at bmaffly@sltrib.com or 801-257-8713.

Twitter: @brianmaffly

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