by Kelly Bastone
Originally posted on Mountain Magazine
Communities across the Colorado Plateau are determined to preserve one of America’s last patches of uncorrupted darkness.
AS A KID, BETTYMAYA FOOTT’S FAVORITE BED WAS HER BACKYARD TRAMPOLINE. LYING THERE, HER DROWSY EYELIDS WOULD FLUTTER OPEN TO SEE THE STARS AND THE UNPOLLUTED DARKNESS ABOVE MOAB, UTAH. “THAT MADE ME WHO I AM,” SAYS FOOTT, A NIGHT SKY CRUSADER WHO NEVER OUTGREW HER WONDER AT SEEING THE MILKY WAY.
It’s hard to fathom if you grew up in rural parts of the Intermountain West like Foott, but most Americans have never glimpsed our home galaxy, or anything but a handful of the night’s brightest stars. Ninety-nine percent of the U.S. population lives beneath skies that are so polluted with artificial lights that they blot out celestial objects. East of the Mississippi, true darkness no longer exists. Given the speedy pace of development, astronomers predict that ten years from now, there will be just three places in the contiguous U.S. where you’ll be able to view the night sky as our ancestors did for millennia: One spot spans the border between southeastern Oregon and western Idaho; another is in northeastern Nevada.
The third is the Colorado Plateau, a broad swath of largely
uninhabited desert spanning eastern Utah, northern Arizona and New Mexico, and western Colorado—which will only stay dark if Foott and her allies win an improbable battle against an army of lumens.
Foott heads up the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative, founded by the National Park Service in 2013 in an attempt to turn down the wattage over the region’s many national parks and monuments. Some, such as Natural Bridges, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands, have earned Dark Sky Park designation from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA). But ambient light from adjacent cities is compromising those pristine views. Light from Phoenix bleeds into the starscape above the Grand Canyon, 200 miles away. And night photos Foott took at Dead Horse Point State Park capture an orange glow on the horizon: lights from Moab.
Foott and her organization recruit private landowners and communities to join the effort to preserve the region’s dark nights. Flagstaff is already on board: That northern Arizona city (where astronomers discovered Pluto in 1930) adopted its first light-control measures in 1958, and have continued to pass lighting ordinances that made it the first International Dark-Sky Community in 2001. This year, the 300 residents of Torrey, Utah (the gateway town to Capitol Reef National Park) switched over to energy-saving streetlights that direct light down to the roadway instead of up into the sky. Their goal for Torrey is to become Utah’s first community to earn the dark-sky designation.
In Moab, the process of adopting light-mitigating measures has been more complicated. “Signage is the sticking point,” says Foott. It’s relatively easy to get community members to agree to shielded lamps for homes and streets. But many business owners feel that bigger, brighter signs are valuable for attracting drive-by visitors.
“The key is not to have government telling people what they can and can’t do,” says Joette Langianese, who’s tasked with developing Moab’s approach to dark-sky preservation. Her strategy is to emphasize the economic benefits of alternative lighting. “We’re trying to create a real positive atmosphere around our dark skies. Astrotourism is a big part of what brings people here, so we’re hoping to get a few business owners to lead the way,” she says. This summer, Foott is overseeing a lighting inventory that will plug all of Moab’s fixtures into a computer program to calculate the savings (in lumens and energy bills) of switching each one to dimmer or shielded alternatives.
Cities like Sedona, an official Dark-Sky Community, that are proactive about preserving their dark skies enjoy higher property values than towns with honky-tonk lighting. Unpolluted skies can even help sell real estate: Summit Sky Ranch, a new, 240-home development near Silverthorne, Colorado, is building dark-sky preservation into its streetlights and overall design—which include an observatory with a 20-inch refractor telescope.
Such projects suggest that the general public is as interested in our night skies as park visitors. According to NPS surveys at parks across the Colorado Plateau, the number of people who rated nightscapes as being “important” or “very important” rose from 10 percent in the early 1990s to 65 percent in 2010. At parks like Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands, night sky events are the most popular of all the interpretive programs offered. People call Dead Horse Point State Park six to 12 months in advance of their intended visit to plan their trip around the star parties that rangers offer there.
“More than beautiful, the night sky is thought-provoking,” says Crystal White, the park’s assistant manager and a night sky ranger who offers astronomy talks there and at the Island in the Sky unit of Canyonlands National Park. Viewed from horizon to horizon, the Milky Way spans 70 million billion miles—the biggest thing humans might ever lay eyes on. That kind of scale makes one feel small, but not insignificant: We are part of the vastness. In this selfie-solipsism age, we need that big picture perspective more than ever.
“Appreciation for dark skies is entering the social consciousness,” says Foott. “Light pollution is one of the only types of pollution that’s completely and immediately reversible. I don’t think we’ll realize the value of seeing the Milky Way, until it’s gone.”