Stargazers, parks officials hope to save the night

Oct 1 2011 - 9:57pm

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(NICK SHORT/Standard-Examiner) Dayna Urquhart (left) and Jim Urquhart photograph Balanced Rock with the stars in the background in April in Arches National Park near Moab.
(NICK SHORT/Standard-Examiner) Dayna Urquhart (left) and Jim Urquhart photograph Balanced Rock with the stars in the background in April in Arches National Park near Moab.

CEDAR CITY -- Gazing skyward from his backyard, longtime Southern Utah resident Abe Heck used to marvel at the Milky Way. Now he can't even see it.

"I could see nebulas through the telescope in town," he said. "Now you have to drive to the mountains or the desert to see a decent picture of the night sky."

Under natural moonless conditions, the National Park Service says, it is easy in some areas to see one's shadow from the glow of Venus or Jupiter and, in some cases, from the Milky Way.

But the superintendent of nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument said urban development could wash away the night sky with bright lights.

Superintendent Paul Roelandt warned that urban growth projections show, in 10 years, stars would no longer be visible even at Zion National Park.

"As urbanization increases, so will the lights," he said. "If we don't get smart with how we use the lights, then it's not far-fetched to say that we won't be able to see stars."

But Roelandt said a few common-sense decisions by lawmakers could reverse the trend. With help from the International Dark Sky Association, Cedar Breaks officials are working with neighboring towns such as Cedar City and Brian Head to promote dark sky-friendly technology.

Roelandt said grants are available for technology that directs light toward the ground while blocking it from projecting skyward. He added cities that become "dark-sky compliant" save 40 to 60 percent on lighting costs.

"It's a win-win situation for cities to have this type of lighting so light isn't sent to the sky where it does no good," Roelandt said. "It's not some environmental group trying to force an issue on the people."

Daphne Sewing, chief of education and partnerships at Cedar Breaks, said a dark sky also results in a healthier ecosystem for many nocturnal animals and attracts tourists.

Bryce Canyon National Park's Astronomy Festival attracts more than 6,000 visitors, and one at the Grand Canyon is even larger, according to the Park Service.

Natural Bridges National Monument in Southern Utah became the first International Dark-Sky Park in 2007.

But of 80 parks measured by park service officials, only a handful still have a natural night sky. Even in the clear air of high-altitude Western parks, the park service said, city lights can be seen more than 185 miles away.

Officials at the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau know changes must be made to capitalize on so-called "astrotourism," a branch of ecotourism where people travel from larger urban areas for a chance to see the stars.

"Even amateurs or people who visit for other reasons come to these stargazing parties because they give you a chance to see your place in the universe," Sewing said.

"It's important for people to see that they connect to a bigger universe."

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