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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Our National Parks: The Best View

Jacob W. Frank
The National Park Service
Denali Star Trails as seen from Bryce Canyon National Park, Bryce, Utah. Increasingly, the sky above national parks is considered as much a resource to protect as the land below.

It’s an understatement to say that the views in the national parks are striking. Take Bryce Canyon National Park, for instance, with its legions of multi-colored hoodoos — iconic “forests of stone” left by millennia of erosion. But this is ho-hum compared to the view when the sun goes down.

Grab a blanket and find a good place along the rim of the canyon, let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and then you’ll see it – the Andromeda Galaxy, two and a half million light years from where you’re resting. This galaxy, named for a princess in Greek mythology, contains a trillion stars, more than twice as many as the Milky Way. As my students would say, that’s epic!

Today we realize that the night sky is just as important to national parks as old growth forests, bears and wild rivers. But the night sky is disappearing from view due to “light pollution”.

Excessive or ineffective outdoor lighting can degrade our view of the night sky by creating glare and “sky glow”, light that’s reflected back to Earth by the atmosphere. Thomas Edison invented the electric light less than 150 years ago and it’s truly transformed the world – for better and for worse.

An estimated two-thirds of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way from their homes and light from urban areas can reduce the visibility of the night sky for a distance of 200 miles, affecting even remote national parks.

Night skies are an important cultural resource. For millennia, our ancestors gazed upon the cosmos in their enduring efforts to understand the physical and metaphysical worlds.

Dark night skies are a natural resource as well. Many of the world’s species – perhaps half or more of all animals – are nocturnal and rely on darkness for feeding, migration, and reproduction.

Credit Jacob W. Frank / National Park Service
National Park Service
Natural Bridges in Bryce Canyon National Park.

National parks are some of the last places we can experience natural darkness.

However, like an increasing number of issues, managing natural darkness is inherently challenging because the National Park Service can’t directly control light generated outside the parks – and must partner with neighboring communities.

Acadia National Park is an exemplar, working with their gateway town of Bar Harbor to pass a progressive lighting ordinance.

One of the best views in the national parks allows us to come face-to-face with the vast night sky, and offers a comforting perspective of our place in the universe. And this potentially transformative view is just waiting to share its wonders with us every night.

Robert Manning is the Steven Rubenstein Professor of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont.
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