By Teri Walker –
Preparing for the next 100 years of existence, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has issued a 36-point call to action for all Park Service employees to preserve America’s special places. Titled “Starry, Starry Night,” call to action number 27 calls for the federal agency to “lead the way in protecting natural darkness as a precious resource,” and names the Colorado Plateau as the venue to create a national model for the initiative. Petrified Forest is taking up the challenge and beginning the process of earning a “dark sky designation” for the national park, which sprawls beneath a wide-open sky with distant horizons, and where park managers believe visitors can have superior night sky experiences.
“When people come to national parks, they’re looking for a special experience. It’s through the National Park System that we can showcase the most compelling stories and places this country has to offer,” said Petrified Forest Chief Interpreter Richard Ullman. “People crave a connection to the night skies, and across much of the world, we’ve masked the skies with artificial lights. Here, the stars blanket the sky, and we want people to be able to come out and enjoy them.”
Ullman and other park representatives have joined the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative, a collaboration that Park Service Director Jarvis directed to be formed and that he envisions including the Park Service along with other federal agencies, partners and local communities. The organization is the nation’s first such cooperative, although there are a number of night sky organizations in existence.
Jarvis singled out the Colorado Plateau as the site of this cooperative because of the vast expanses of uninterrupted landscapes where there are sparse, far-flung population centers with long stretches of horizons with nothing to dim dramatic starry skies.
Petrified Forest is in the early stages of seeking a dark sky designation.
Chief of Resource Management Patricia Thompson said the park is conducting an inventory of its existing lighting at visitor buildings and on employee housing. To keep from sending beams into the night skies, park lights will need to be downward pointing or shielded. Summer interns are tracking down every light in the park, and noting what type of fixture and bulb is currently in use. Workers are noting what needs to happen with each fixture: does it need to be replaced, angled differently or is it OK as is?
Also part of the process is educating people about the value of dark skies, Ullman noted. Retrofitting the park to meet night sky criteria will not likely be wildly expensive, but it will take funding, which means there will need to be an appetite for the project–an agreement among those who would be promoting or providing funding that night skies are worth preserving.
Ullman said the park would likely seek grant dollars and request money through the federal appropriations process that funds National Park Service operations.
Already, Petrified Forest is providing astrological experiences for visitors. Recently, more than 400 people gathered at the park to view the annular solar eclipse, and others returned last week for a lunar eclipse event.
Ullman said the park hopes to increase its night sky viewing and astrological events, and protecting the night sky as a park resource will help ensure it can continue to do so.
Ullman points out experiencing the Petrified Forest at night is a completely different encounter than visitors have during daylight hours. One Park Service poster quips, “Half the park is after dark!,” conveying the message that there are nontraditional opportunities to enjoy national parks. Ullman anticipates with tentative plans to offer expanded hours at Petrified Forest and possibly for future camping facilities, there may be opportunities for campfire and night sky programs to be regular features at the park. For now, occasional astrological and evening events will continue, with summer solstice celebrations beginning June 14 up next on the park calendar. June 14-28 there will be summer solstice marker viewings each morning, and on Friday, June 15, there will be a free story telling and star gazing event beginning at 7:30 p.m.
Night sky viewing activities are already offered in a number of national parks and monuments, including Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Big Bend National Park in west Texas, and Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument in southwestern Utah, among others.
Speaking of the night sky viewing experience visitors could anticipate at Petrified Forest, Ullman said, “If you’ve seen the sunset over the Painted Desert and the afterglow, you realize you couldn’t enjoy the night sky in a better place.”