Electric lights have revolutionized our lives, but when human-made lights began to shine as bright as the sun and moon, urban dwellers quickly lost sight of the vast galaxy that twinkled above—and the benefits of dark skies.
“Arguably, the light bulb is the most transformative invention humans have introduced to this planet. But if light bulbs have a dark side, it’s that they have stolen the night. The excess light we dump into our environments is endangering ecosystems by harming animals whose life cycles depend on dark,” wrote Nadia Drake, in her Nat Geo story about electric lights and their unexpected toll on wildlife and human health. “And in a primal sense, we’ve lost our connection to nighttime skies, the tapestries into which our ancestors wove their star-studded stories, timed the planting and harvesting of crops, and deduced the physical laws governing the cosmos.”
Enter the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Founded in 1988, the United States nonprofit recognizes public parks, reserves, and places across the world with the least amount of light pollution. Most are open to campers or offer lodging—meaning you can spend the whole night looking up at the sky’s universal beauty—making them all that more important to protect.
In the U.S. there is a growing list of official Dark Sky Preserves that provide ideal settings for stargazing. More and more cities, towns, and regions are working to preserve their night skies to support light-sensitive wildlife populations, ensure their residents have access to dark skies, and enhance their tourism industry.
Many stargazers seek out Dark Sky Preserves simply for unobstructed views of the Milky Way. But dark skies are more than just a tourist attraction; they’re a crucial part of wildlife protection and conservation efforts.
“Increasing light pollution around the world is now more firmly linked to declines in species of pollinating insects and migratory birds, both of which play critical roles in healthy ecosystems,” says John Barentine, the director of conservation for the International Dark-Sky Association.
There are currently more than 60 dark sky parks, communities, and reserves in the U.S. But only 12 of America’s 63 national parks are certified by the IDA. These include Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Big Bend National Parks.
Dark sky places and other similarly protected areas not only contribute to healthy ecosystems but also serve as natural laboratories for large-scale field studies. In Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, the National Park Service is conducting “lighting treatment” research in some of the park’s parking lots to study the effect of light wavelengths on the surrounding wildlife population. In fact, it is only because the park is largely protected from the influence of outside light pollution that such an experiment is possible.
For travelers, national parks tend to attract larger crowds, but they aren’t the only places to catch a glimpse of the cosmos. Here are protected areas in Arkansas, Idaho, and Nebraska where you can see the stars above—and appreciate the conservation work of the people around you.
Starry nights in Arkansas
Established in 1972, the Buffalo National River in northwest Arkansas became the country’s first National River and, in 2019, it received its International Dark Sky designation. According to Cassie Branstetter, chief of interpretation at the Buffalo National River International Dark Sky Park, the team worked closely with the park’s community partners early in the certification process because “it’s not just our own infrastructure that may pollute the night sky, it’s light pollution from nearby communities.”
Surrounding towns weren’t required to make changes for Buffalo National River to receive its IDA designation. But, inspired by the park’s efforts, officials in nearby Gilbert changed their town’s lighting to better preserve the night sky.
Ben Fruehauf, a former mayor of Gilbert and the owner of Buffalo Camping & Canoeing, anticipates—and is looking forward to—dark sky tourism increasing in the area. Since the park doesn’t have any plans to hold any dark sky parties, Fruehauf and his neighbors decided to plan their own. This October Gilbert will host its first Dark Sky Festival, with 1,500 to 3,000 people expected to attend.
According to Fruehauf, there’s no shortage of campgrounds for tents and RVs, in addition to a few dozen cabins and guesthouses in and around Gilbert. He adds that because Gilbert is a popular destination in the Ozarks for rafting, kayaking, hiking, biking, and zip-lining, festival attendees have plenty of outdoorsy activities to complement scheduled events.
Idaho and the cosmos
Idaho is home to Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the nation’s first IDA-recognized region and the country’s only gold-tier sky (a status reserved for the darkest of skies.) Soon, it may be joined by Bruneau Dunes State Park. Bruneau, which has North America’s tallest single-structured sand dune at 470 feet above the surrounding desert, began seeking its IDA designation in 2015.
Park staff spent years securing funding and installing IDA-certified fixtures. But the pandemic forced staff to redirect its efforts to park maintenance because of increased visitation. Park manager Bryce Bealba says the new goal is to secure the certification by May 2023 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the park’s telescope, as well as the opening of a new observatory.
Built in 1998, the observation tower has brought in thousands of visitors each year, and Bealba hopes the new telescope and dark sky designation will teach people about “the importance of preserving the night sky and the potential impacts of light pollution on both humans and wildlife.” Not only will the new scope be more powerful, it will eliminate the need for a ladder to reach the eyepiece, making it ADA-accessible.
Constellations over Nebraska
Located 25 miles southwest of Valentine, Nebraska, the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area has been hosting its annual Star Parties since the mid-90s, a time when stargazing parties only existed in about five cities around the world.
Now that the lesser-known area has met IDA requirements including installing shields around outdoor light fixtures and low-temperature bulbs, as well as conducting a lighting inventory, staff are working toward a Dark Sky Sanctuary designation. This category is intended for especially remote and geographically isolated areas with few or no threats to the quality of their night skies.
For stargazers wanting to take in the Milky Way in a group setting, Nebraska’s annual Star Party brings in hundreds of dark sky enthusiasts each summer. The space over the Merritt Reservoir and nearby Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest provides phenomenal star gazing from April through October, and this year’s 28th Annual Nebraska Star Party is scheduled for August 1-6, 2021.
“We want everyone who visits Merritt to enjoy the pristine star-gazing,” says Jenn Bartja, adventure travel specialist for Nebraska Tourism, “but our participation in the International Dark Sky Program is aimed at helping foster stewardship of the night sky.”
According to Bartja, it’s often as simple as just turning off the lights.