Saving the Night

Tucson group is on a mission to bring back dark skies

Monument Valley ArizonaPicture a night sky filled with stars, sparkling across the darkness as far as the eye can see. Hard to imagine? You’re not alone.

Artificial outdoor lights blanket communities around the globe, making it more challenging to experience truly dark places. This light pollution not only disrupts starry nights, it impacts wildlife habitats, energy consumption and more.

But communities around Arizona and the world are committed to changing that with help from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The Tucson-based nonprofit has been working for nearly 30 years to bring back dark skies and reduce the harmful effects of light pollution.

This year, the association is on track to designate a record-setting number of “dark sky places”—communities, parks and other places—that are committed to preserving dark skies. The association hit a record 14 places last year and has already approved 12 so far this year.

“The program rewards communities and parks for doing the right thing and encouraging them to protect night skies,” says Cheryl Ann Bishop, the association’s communications and public affairs director.

Flagstaff is the world’s first recognized dark sky place, receiving its designation in 2001. The city, home to renowned observatories, has been a leader in helping educate the public about protecting dark skies. Sedona, also a longtime advocate, received dark-sky status in 2014.

The two communities have made major strides, from passing innovative ordinances that limit outdoor light, to persuading state transportation officials to use dark-sky compliant lighting along certain thoroughfares. The efforts are reducing light pollution, conserving energy and protecting the nighttime environment for generations to come.

Arizona is also home to three other dark sky places. The remote Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument stretches over more than 1 million acres and boasts pristine night skies. Oracle State Park is just about 20 miles from Tucson, but “sky glow” from the city is blocked by the Santa Catalina Mountains, offering another authentic dark sky experience. And just earning designation this year is the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation on the Arizona-Utah border, north of the Grand Canyon.

Arizona’s top tourist attraction and natural wonder could soon be joining the list of dark sky places. Grand Canyon officials are working on an application with help from the IDA. They are targeting a designation as part of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016, Bishop says.

Each new designation plays a critical role in raising awareness about the need to preserve dark skies.

“We’re losing our heritage of dark skies,” Bishop says. “I don’t think there’s any human on the planet, when they see a truly spectacular starry sky, who isn’t moved. It’s inspiring.”

Story by Susie Steckner
Photo by Mark Lipczynski

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