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Night Over the National Parks

Leave Them Unimpaired

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson deftly lifted his pen to sign the Organic Act. At that same moment, starlight left the variable star Ruchbah in the constellation Cassiopeia.

Wilson's pen came down on the paper and swirled through his signature, forming the National Park Service (NPS) to promote and regulate national parks, monuments and reservations. Wilson affirmed the Service's purpose was

"to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Unimpaired. That's a high bar, but requisite.


Fast forward to 2016. Those photons that left Ruchbah in Woodrow Wilson's time, traveling outward at 186,000 miles per second, are just now striking the eyes of stargazers within the National Parks. At 100 light years away, Ruchbah is dubbed the Centennial Star of the National Park Service.

Ruchbah, the Centennial Star of the National Park Service, in the constellation Cassiopeia;!Star-of-the-National-Park-Service/c17jj/563d5f7f0cf275e9c59b9e7a

This year I've looked for Ruchbah at several National Parks, Monuments, and Lakeshores. Each time I check into a park visitor center I share the story of Ruchbah with at least one ranger. Oh, my, the stars and Milky Way I've seen in 2016 from Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Mount Ranier, Mount St. Helens, North Cascades, Great Smoky Mountains, Indiana Dunes, and more--thank goodness for these blessed national treasures. Thanks to the people with foresight who strive to protect such resources.

Astronomy outreach at Natural Bridges National Monument

Dark Matters

The history of the NPS parallels our own personal lives in one way--half of all history has occurred between sunset and sunrise. Unfortunately, in those past 100 years of sunset-to-sunrise, the night sky has not remained unimpaired. Rather, light pollution impinges on the grandeur of the night, even the serene skies of National Parks.

What will the next hundred years beget? If we blithely consume energy and illuminate the night at or beyond our current pace, will we even be able to see Ruchbah in the future?

Light is an affront to the nocturnal kingdom of animals and insects and amphibians and more. Even humans require darkness--the absence of light--for our bodies to produce the hormones that protect us from certain diseases and ailments. Not "kinda dark"--we need dark dark. The American Medical Association recently stated with clarity the human health issues related to poor lighting.

Fortunately, a few simple steps can avert the negative consequence of light pollution when installing new lights. In Lighting the Corridors I summarized how municipalities and residents alike can readily minimize the woe. Lights should be fully shielded and used only at brightness and frequency needed. When LEDs are involved, insist that the LED rating does not exceed 3000K! Go above 3000K and you are delving into the harsh and detrimental blue-rich range. Please, check the number on the packaging even if you're just replacing a home lamp post light--it matters.

NPS Serves the Night

The National Park Service has been a long-time advocate of valuing and preserving the nighttime environment, currently proclaiming O Radiant Dark! O Starry Night! The Service wears many hats while protecting important cultural and natural resources of the night. For example, while its rangers engage visitors through face-to-face enrichment, behind the scenes the NPS is proactive in managing lightscapes. I'm thankful that our National Park Service has taken this stand.

National Park Service-Night Skies;

Give a Centennial Gift

Yes, National Parks with dark skies can be distant from where many people live and subsequently illuminate. Yes, it often requires that you make a dedicated trip. In the interim, capture a sense of the National Park beauty and buy yourself or someone else a Centennial birthday gift in recognition of this 100th birthday. For example, astronomer Tyler Nordgren, who coined the expression "Half the Park is After Dark," explores the National Parks with an eye to the sky in his book Stars Above Earth Below. He further captures our connection to the night sky at National Parks with his Space Art Travel Bureau, a series of posters inspired by a starfield seen from each respective park. Find your favorite.

Poster courtesy of Tyler Nordgren: "See the Stars from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore";

Go. Marvel. Act.

Of course, the best way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service is by visiting them (#FindYourPark) and getting out under the stars. You really have to go, in person, to witness the grandeur that is at risk of being lost overhead. Give your inner child (and other children alike) a visceral experience under a starry firmament. Look around to see the nighttime environment in which your body evolved and the darkness on which which it thrives.

Find Ruchbah. Let its photons from 1916 strike your eyes at 186,000 miles per second. Seek an employee from the National Park Service and thank them for their work in keeping the night sky unimpaired for generations to come. Then do your part at home, too. Thanks for your consideration.

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