Dark Skies and Stars Above

Natural Bridges, Utah

Americans have lost silence, solitude and darkness, but now the National Park Service has new initiatives to preserve and appreciate our dark skies, especially on the Colorado Plateau.

Natural Bridges National Monument west of Blanding, Utah, has been named the world’s first Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association and visitors are encouraged not only to see the massive Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo Bridges, but also to look up. At night. Into the heavens. To find our place in the universe as the Ancestral Puebloans did a millennia ago.

Across the entire United States, only 1% of National Park Service sites are as dark at night as Natural Bridges. The park is notable for its lack of light pollution because of its remoteness in southeast Utah. The International Dark Sky Association urged Natural Bridges to make the night even darker, so the park retrofitted 80% of their light fixtures making them dark sky friendly by shielding them so all light points downward. The fixtures use 13-watt compact fluorescent light bulbs and provide ample light on the ground but no stray light.

“Natural Bridges has reduced its operational costs and energy use by upgrading its outdoor lighting, creating a better habitat for nocturnal wildlife, and improving visibility and safety at night,” states Superintendent Corky Hays. She adds, “I hope our national parks can continue to provide a clear view of the heavens that so many of us have lost from our backyards.”

Gordon Gower is the park’s astronomer and “Sky Ranger.” Bring a fleece jacket and a camp chair to his 16 ½ inch telescope and he’ll show you galaxies. Gower explains, “I want people to make a connection to the sky and to learn how the National Park Service has come to recognize that the sky is also part of our resources. We’re training rangers in dark sky interpretation. It’s just as much our job to protect the night sky as wildlife and all the rest.”

I know what he means. My career took me to other parts of the country and the humidity east of the Mississippi River meant that at night the stars were blurs, not bright pinpoints of light. I’d look up and see mushy blackness. Half my world was gone.

At Natural Bridges, 6,500 feet in elevation, the universe awaits those who turn to the skies. Sky Ranger Gower takes complicated astronomical ideas and makes them simple. Stacks of visitor comment cards prove his success. Gower states, “Most folks only see the moon and two or three bright stars. We have people come here who’ve never seen the Milky Way.” A family from Germany wrote him about his evening program and exclaimed, “That was a night we’ll never forget.” In fact, San Juan County, Utah is actively promoting dark sky tourism to Europeans and Japanese, who in their busy industrial cities can’t see what we take for granted—brilliant stars and planets moving across a black infinity.

Moab-based Canyonlands Natural History Association granted the park funds for their big 16 ½ inch telescope. With eyepieces, the $12,000 scope came to $15,000. Gower also uses a Hydrogen Alpha Scope for viewing the sun during the day. This instrument, paid for through Natural Bridges fee program, lets in 1,000th of 1% of sunlight so visitors can see sunspots and prominences or huge fountains at the edge of the sun—so large that multiple earths could fit under them. Gower turns to tourists and asks, “Would you like to see our favorite star?” He enjoys teaching astronomy to visitors. ‘I like it because I’m able to show people stunning and beautiful things they’ve never seen,” Gower adds.

Chief Ranger Jim Dougan at Natural Bridges says, “When I walk out at night there’s absolute quiet and I see the Milky Way as a tangible presence. What the Dark Sky initiative is starting to do is to get people to understand what they take for granted and to increase their perspective to look up at night. Many of our visitors come from cities with light pollution and that’s wasted energy. Looking up at night gets us to use our senses more fully. People have a very strong response to seeing the sky at night.”

Dougan notes, “We get more positive letters to the park’s superintendent on the Dark Sky Initiative than any other program in the park.” A typical astronomy program starts at twilight and takes 30-45 minutes, but Gordon Gower’s programs last two-three hours. He has a clear ending to his presentations, but no one wants to leave. Visitors quietly ask questions and keep looking up.

Across the Colorado Plateau national parks are engaged with this new evolving mission, and park management plans include natural silence and pristine night viewing as management objectives. Dark Sky programs happen every night in the summer. At Bryce Canyon National Park dark sky viewing at 9,000 feet is extremely popular. During the summer 200-400 people a night will share a dozen telescopes.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico has an observatory, several telescopes, and an astronomy program that began in the early 1990s. Superintendent Barbara West notes, “In the management plan the dark sky at Chaco is an important natural resource. Certainly this was true for the Ancestral Puebloans.”

The National Park Service’s dark skies program connects us with deep time. When we look up at the night sky we’re doing what humans have always done—studying stars, asking profound questions, wondering about our place in the universe. This is another outdoor Utah adventure we can all partake in—stargazing. Here’s the opportunity for a new industry—night sky tours by astronomically-savvy tour guides. This is a growing phenomenon occurring around the world. Tour guides have always shown us landscapes. Why not have guides teach Utah “nightscapes?”

On Sunday May 20, 2012 my wife and I were at Chaco Canyon for the annular solar eclipse along with hundreds of other visitors from around the world. There was no place to park but no one was inconvenienced. Like good feelings at a rock concert, everyone shared—telescopes, special solar glasses, laughter.  As the moon merged against the sun creating a ring of fire at full totality, a collctive gasp went up. We were seeing a unique event that would not occur again across the Colorado Plateau for 57 years. We were strangers brought together by the movements of the heavens.

Under the “smart traveler” section of the June/July 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler is a full page called “The Idea—Night Raiders.” A  dramatic photo shows tourists at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah under a brilliant set of stars. The arch is front lit and the stars are pinpoints of light above. The brief article discusses stargazing tourism in Australia’s Royal National Park, Chile’s Atacama Desert, Galloway Forest Park in Scotland and—Natural Bridges. The goal is to show tourists “natural nightscapes.” Why not? Who says that Utah adventures have to be limited to mountains, canyons and rivers? Beam me up, Scotty. A new world awaits.



Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado but he’s often in Bluff, Utah. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu

2 Responses to “Dark Skies and Stars Above”

  1. Great article Andrew. It was a pleasure reading this and meeting you out at Chaco. I worked with Gordon Gower and had the pleasure to meet Superintendent Corky Hays soon after the IDA designation. In fact, the photo at the top of the article was one I took on that visit and it is the one photo I show in my talks around the country that gets the biggest “oohs and ahhs.” Good job bringing this place to “light.”

  2. If ever an opportunity shall arise…Please dear ones do not forget to consider me for any chance to be a part on this new star crew sharing starlight and starry nights doing tours or really doing anything at all in Moab or our State Parks. Thank you all, Namaste!

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