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Death Valley National Park Earns International Dark Sky Park Recognition


The constellation of Orion as seen from Badwater in Death Valley National Park. Photo by Tyler Nordgren.

So dark and clear are the night skies over Death Valley National Park that it's easy to connect the dots to form the constellations. So dark, in fact, that the park has been awarded a gold certification as an International Dark Sky Park, just the third unit of the National Park System to gain such distinction.

Among the requirements for gold certification are that the "typical observer is not distracted by glary light sources. Light domes are only dim and restricted to sky close to horizon" and "the full array of visible sky phenomena can be viewed—e.g. aurora, airglow, Milky Way, zodiacal light, and faint meteors."

“Death Valley is a place to gaze in awe at the expanse of the Milky Way, follow a lunar eclipse, track a meteor shower, or simply reflect on your place in the universe,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “We greatly appreciate the International Dark-Sky Association certification. It illustrates the park’s commitment to protect natural darkness and supports the wider mission to protect nightscapes in the entire National Park System.

“As the world becomes more urbanized,” the director continued, “the value of a starry sky only increases and our ability to offer visitors these incredible experiences is an integral part of the National Park Service mission to preserve our nation’s most cherished places for this and future generations.”

Death Valley’s natural darkness, along with National Park Service actions to reduce excessive outdoor lighting, led the International Dark-Sky Association to designate the park as the third and largest International Dark Sky Park.

“Death Valley’s night skies are a thing of beauty that everyone should have a chance to see. We hope that the action the park has taken to preserve the night sky within its borders will inspire surrounding communities to follow their example," said Bob Parks, the association's executive director.

To qualify for the dark sky designation, the park improved external lighting at facilities in the Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells areas, reducing energy consumption, sky glow, and glare. The designation requires the park to sustain its efforts to protect night sky resources and visitor education. Implementation of the park’s lighting guidelines will improve the natural character of the night and leave the stars untarnished in other areas of the park.

“The Dark Sky Park designation represents not only the efforts of the park and its partners, but the dedication of avid amateur astronomers who have sought the park’s world-class starry skies for decades,” said Dan Duriscoe, of the Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division.

Park rangers offer monthly night sky programs and hold stargazing events with astronomy organizations. Using high-powered telescopes, visitors can explore the mysteries of Death Valley’s dark, night skies.

“At Death Valley the sky literally begins at your feet,” said Tyler Nordgren, associate professor of Physics at the University of Redlands (Calif.) and International Dark-Sky Association board member. “When my students and I look up at night from our southern California campus, we can usually count 12 stars in the sky. However, less than a five-hour drive from Los Angeles there's a place where anyone can look up and see the universe the way everyone could 100 years ago.”

The park’s actions to reduce unnecessary lighting also tie in with “Starry, Starry Night,” one of the goals in A Call to Action—the National Park Service’s stewardship and engagement priorities for its second century.

The other National Park System units to gain gold certification for their dark skies? Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah and Big Bend National Park in Texas.


"National Parks are places where curious minds and dark skies collide!" John Lowery Dobson, age 97, inventor of the renowned Dobsonian telescope and co-founder of the Sidewalk Astronomers.

The Sidewalk Astronomers have traditionally met in Death Valley over the Christmas and NewYear hoidays to engage in public service volunteer activities letting anyone curious enough to stay out after dark to look through their home-made telescopes at the heavens above. I'm glad that Death Valley has made the list along with Natural Bridges and Big Bend. I hope many more NPS areas will eventually qualify.

In fact, I have wondered why other parks haven't yet made the IDA listing of dark sky parks? Certainly Great Basin and Isles Royale should be on the list as well. I decided to ask "Dark Ranger" Kevin Noel Poe of Bryce Canyon National Park. Here is Kevin's answer (who gave me permission to share this):


The approval process for International Dark Sky Park designation is long and complicated, especially if you have:

a) a overnight concessionaire in your park,

b) a large NPS housing area/ maintenance yard, and

c) a typical boundary-town with over-the-top advertising.

I've outlined the following steps/challenges base on my experience and those of fellow "Dark Ranger" colleagues. In case it's not obvious, mine are written with due consideration to unforeseen complications an NPS area is likely to encounter.

Alternatively the official steps as articulated by IDA can be reviewed at the bottom of this page:

NOTE: Standards are in the process of review and though I know how they are likely to change (pending vote by board of directors) I've only been authorized to say that color of light (red or amber rather than blue-white) will be an important part of the new standards.

1. Light Survey/Plan:

You need "dark ranger(s)" or other night sky advocate(s) that understand how to do the work and are motivated enough to see it through -- survey work (GPS, photography, reporting) and as part of the proposal develop a lighting plan (lighting ordinance) that not only documents which lights have been retrofitted prior to submission AND which ones will be retrofitted in coming year --

It's a case by case basis, but generally 25% of the lights out of standard can be phased in over a 1-year delayed implementation period.

The International Dark Sky Association has staff that can do all of this work as contractors (some parks are taking this approach now). But other less expensive options include approaching Universities, Astronomy Clubs, and Astronomy Volunteer In Parks to find the necessary night sky advocate(s).

2. Partnering:

This is usually the most difficult of all because it requires trying to get nearby communities to agree to some sort of lighting ordinance.

Obvious exceptions to the high level of difficulty would be (a) parks without neighboring communities (Natural Bridges, Death Valley, and Big Bend) or (b) said neighboring communities who pro park/pro lighting ordinance (Acadia & Zion).

3. Support:

But for #2 to be successful, you need a Mgmt. Team that is either trusting enough to allow your highly motivated night sky advocate(s) to take the lead in community partnering, or a Mgmt Team that is willing to prioritize that task into their own very full to-do lists.

4. Outreach:

You need some sort of regular offering of night sky related interpretive/ education programs - that also heighten awareness to why and how audiences might want to protect the night sky in their home communities.

Astronomy/Constellation Lore is not enough without the actionable resource message. Obviously more programs are better, but even just monthly is apparently sufficient for designation as in the case of Big Bend and Death Valley.

Many would be dismayed to know how much #4 is a barrier.

As a side note, I am often patted-on-the-head and sent on my way after I demonstrate, in valid detail, how other parks' interpretive leaders might incorporate more night sky programing into their existing interpretive themes.

For example 95% of the charismatic mega-fauna visitors come to see, and interpreters love to interpret are actually nocturnal or at least crepuscular species. The last known and retold remnants of dying Native American languages are the nouns and verbs from their star stories.

What exemplifies a true wilderness experience more so than marveling at a pristine night sky? Can a detailed telling of a historic exploration, be told while ignoring the practice of navigation by the stars? Etc. Etc.

5a. Financing Retrofits:

Of course there's never enough money in the budget. So most parks will need to find the time and talent necessary (Mgmt Team and/or your night sky advocate(s)) to write grants to get money to pay for all the necessary lighting retrofits including labor. And/or even more $ if you are going to contract the work of #1.

5b. Or you can partner with lighting industry leader like Musco who will happily provide your park with free, some-what, night-sky friendly lights as long as you endorse their brand name here and there as was done at Big Bend.

But some parks ultimately refused such an offer including Zion, because they were willing to bravely look the gift horse in the mouth and say "Thanks, but no thanks."

As I understand it, many such declinations were based on Musco desire to deliver off-the-shelf lights, rather than designing lights and especially fixtures that better fit park's established architectural schemes.

Yet I remain optimistic as I hope to continue working with Musco as a night-sky consultant on a park-wide, totally donated, re-lighting of Mt Rushmore (where I cut my interpretive teeth).

During preliminary consultation, I insisted on the need for amber filtered LEDs instead of eco-awful blue-white LEDs which are more readily available and more familiar to Musco. Hopefully that will not a deal breaker for Musco. I haven't heard anything since that first discussion 2 months ago.

The problem is that most NPS decision makers know that blue-white LED are highly energy efficient and have long lifespans (which is highly desirable for $-budget as well as CO2 budget) but are largely ignorant to the preponderance of scientific evidence that shows how detrimental blue-white light (LED sourced or otherwise) is in terms of scotobiology (nocturnal ecology).

Bob Parks, President of the International Dark Sky Association describes the inevitable global adoption of LEDs as a critical inflection point. Due to the long bulb life of LEDs, every time we fail to get the "Don't settle for Blue-white LEDs!" message out, we allow the ecological subset of night sky preservation to back-burnered for another 25 years.

Amber LEDs (special LEDs that only "throw" yellow-orange light) are not only more expensive because of supply and demand, but have proven less than ideal as there's not enough light in the blue-green spectrum for EMS personal to tell the difference between Blood, Oil, and Water. However, the good news is that regular blue-white LEDs can be filtered to create the perfect win-win situation.

No lighting manufacture/engineering company has more experience with this technology than Monrad Engineering of Tucson AZ. I would encourage EVERY park looking to re-light itself to work with Monrad.


So, I don't have specific answers for Isle Royale and Great Basin, but based on steps above, it's my guess that it would be easier for Great Basin to obtain IDA designation as it has no overnight facilities (save campgrounds) inside the park.

Obviously Isle Royal has no neighboring communities (I grew up on the island) but to the best of my knowledge, it has not incorporated the night sky into it's interpretive offerings. Great Basin does have the very small town of Baker, NV nearby, but it is trending toward becoming a NPS friendly town. Best of all, Great Basin has an active night sky interpretative effort and from our experience here at Bryce, I can attest that nothing makes supportive neighboring towns like the flood of $ that comes from increased "length of stay" generated from astro-tourism.

Here at Bryce we add about $1.7 million (based on the very conservative 15% economical multiplier) to our local economy that would not exist if not for our 35,000 annual astro/night sky related interpretive contacts.

Speaking of other parks not yet on IDA's list, I thought this might be the more glaring question, "Why isn't Bryce Canyon an IDA Dark Sky Park?" In case some are curious here's my VERY specific progress report:

#1 I'm about half-way done with our survey/plan -- too much time spent this winter with sequestration nonsense: trying to justify our interpretive existence / come up with gentle ways to slit our own throats if sequestration goes into effect.

#2 I'm making some progress with #2 because I have good support for..

#3 because Superintendent Bradybaugh trusts me to do some of this. And is eager to lend his influence and his advanced partnering skills as necessary.

#4 We have night sky interpretation in spades -- like nowhere else in NPS. Indeed, we rival most public observatories even when it comes to merely increasing astro-literacy.

With the exception of McDonald Observatory, most big public observatories are surprisingly under-committed when it comes to heightening awareness for night sky preservation.

#5 IDA has made significant donations of bulbs and labor. IDA President Bob Parks himself helped me re-light the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center -- park's biggest offender. But much more money will be needed for the rest of park and especially Ruby's Inn (Bryce Canyon City) though I have some clever ideas about financing that which also come with support from Superintendent Bradybaugh.

Finally, please extend my invitation to the NPS retirees that if any of their coalition want to help fund-raise, community partner, or even just assist with light survey / planning / submission writing, I'm sure Bryce Canyon wouldn't be the only park that would greatly appreciate any such assistance.

- Kevin "The Dark Ranger" Poe

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