What Does It Mean To Be An International Dark Sky Park?

For me, the ability to see the Milky Way in all its glory is one of the great joys of living in the American West. With the exception of one humid and buggy summer in Pennsylvania, I’ve spent my entire life here, fortunate to never be more than an hour’s drive from a dark, star-filled night sky. Sadly, not all of us are so lucky. The stars are something that unite us and bring us together, yet today less than 25% of Americans can even see the Milky Way from their backyard.

Fortunately, portions of Iron County remain some of the darkest and best places in the world to view the night sky. Many nighttime visitors to Cedar Breaks National Monument (where I work) get to see more stars than they’ve ever seen in their lives…even when the moon is out! This March, Cedar Breaks was officially designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that works to combat unnecessary light pollution worldwide.

This designation recognizes Cedar Breaks as a night sky sanctuary, the first of its kind in southwestern Utah. Such recognition is timely, because places like Cedar Breaks are disappearing rapidly. As cities expand and population continues to grow, the loss of the night sky may seem inevitable. Must we resign ourselves to a sky filled with only a handful of stars in the name of progress?

Fortunately, the answer is no! Simple changes in how we use light can keep us safe and secure and preserve the night sky for our children and grandchildren. The problem is that many light fixtures allow much of their light to spill sideways or escape upwards into the night sky. This light is wasted and serves no useful purpose here on Earth. The IDA estimates that in the US we waste more than $3 billion each year on light that does little more than illuminate the underbelly of the International Space Station.

By using light fixtures that direct light downward onto what needs to be lit, we can have a well-lit street, front door, or sidewalk, a dark night sky and save money and energy in the process. A win, win, win scenario! When Cedar Breaks installed “dark-sky” friendly lights in 2011, we cut our outdoor lighting energy usage by 92%, simply because we eliminated wasted light.

With our designation as an International Dark Sky Park comes the responsibility to help protect the night sky for future generations. We can’t do it alone though. The power to keep the skies dark at Cedar Breaks and throughout Southern Utah ultimately rests in the hands of local communities. And when a community comes together to do that, the results can be stunning. Starting in 1958, Flagstaff, Arizona began taking city-wide actions (like those mentioned above) to preserve its view of the night sky. The result is that the Milky Way is visible from the public square downtown, despite an area population of nearly 100,000 people! Flagstaff is now a hub for astro-tourism and home to numerous active observatories, demonstrating that when light is used wisely, a bustling, thriving city and a dark night sky can coexist in perfect harmony.

At Cedar Breaks, we like to say that “half the park is after dark.” If you’ve never been to Cedar Breaks at night before, come say hello this summer and experience a dark night sky for yourself. We hope that our designation as an International Dark Sky Park will inspire more people to appreciate the beauty of the night sky and take some simple actions to help protect it. Utah is well on its way to becoming a hub for dark-sky tourism as well. Millions already come here each year for our great weather and unsurpassed daytime scenery. Right now we have the dark skies, but it is up to us to protect them for future citizens and visitors.

Written By Zach Schierl, Cedar Breaks National Monument