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Torrey • Utah is emerging as a global leader in protecting dark skies from light pollution, attracting visits to the Colorado Plateau that during the next decade are expected to pump $2.5 billion into rural economies.
Residents in several southern Utah communities have mounted a grass-roots push to retrofit old lighting outside homes, business and public thoroughfares to curb stray beams and save money through more efficient, directed lighting.
Torrey, the gateway town to Capitol Reef National Park, is slated to become the state's first Dark Sky Community, while Springdale, Boulder, Moab, Kanab and the border town of Page, Ariz., are considering or have passed light-curbing ordinances. The Dark Sky Community designation is an award granted so far to only 15 other communities in the United States, Canada, Scotland, Denmark and the Channel Islands.
In addition, the University of Utah has awarded formal recognition to the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies, the first academic center in the world dedicated to discovering, developing and applying knowledge to help protect night skies, according to U. officials. And next year, the university will help sponsor the largest global conference to date, examining the impacts of artificial lights.
Light pollution prompted Torrey resident Mary Bedingfield-Smith to find out what the small town (population 300) could do to curb artificial light. A single streetlight near her home was so bright that it lit up a row of cottonwood trees, spoiling her view of Capitol Reef's star-encrusted sky. She chatted with neighbors on walks and met with town officials with a proposal: Her group would raise money to install new lighting, and the municipality would save more than $900 in lighting costs each year.
Bedingfield-Smith, a retired elementary-school teacher and Utah State University educator, was able to form a consensus by assuring residents that no one would be forced to replace existing lighting. And her group would pay new lighting costs for those who wanted to retrofit but couldn't afford it.
"People are worried about their specific situation, which is difficult to address in a large meeting," said Bedingfield-Smith, now a Torrey planning-commission member. "When we talk individually, we can discuss specific lighting needs and what can be done to get there. Without individuals and associations working together, the last remaining dark areas on the planet could well disappear without anyone noticing."
In late March, crews replaced traditional bulbs, which spew out beams in all directions, in the town's streetlights along Main Street. Workers from Garkane Energy Cooperative installed new lights using spectra that direct light away from the sky.
Torrey residents turned to online crowdfunding to help pay for eight new streetlights. Nearly $13,000 was raised through the website ioby.org ("in our backyards"), and the Torrey arts organization Entrada helped raise an additional $7,000. The donations paid for the town's retrofitted bulbs and new lighting at the Torrey Trading Post and Chuck Wagon store and motel, both on Main Street. Streetlights on 100 North have not yet been replaced, allowing residents to see the different effects on the night-sky view.
The longtime goal is to assist other towns in the sparsely populated Wayne County (population 2,700) to protect its dark skies from the county seat of Loa along the State Highway 24 corridor leading to Capitol Reef.
Utah has more dark-sky places than any other state or country, but light pollution is eroding this valuable, irreplaceable resource, said John Barentine, program manager for the International Dark-Sky Association. Torrey, for example, has been the single greatest source of light pollution above Capitol Reef. Visitors must hike into the deepest southern reaches of the park to enjoy the most pristine night skies.
"In the American West, small towns emit more amounts of light, relative to their populations, than do large metropolitan areas," he said. "There's also broader support for private-property rights, and a fundamental human fear of darkness. The tendency in rural areas is to light up property in the name of safety and security."
Yet people can be safe and save money by using lights appropriately, advocates say. Simple shields on existing bulbs, for example, direct beams downward, rather than lighting up the heavens. And instead of using expensive all-night floodlights, motion detectors can flash an immediate alert to an intruder.
LED lights are phasing out other types of bulbs, but some of the brightest lamps cast a blue color, creating glare problems. It's suggested that consumers purchase LEDs measured in light output of 3,000 lumens. By comparison, an old standard 100-watt bulb equals about 1,600 lumens. The IDA website lists names of companies that manufacture appropriate lighting. The association also has an IDA Seal of Approval that provides objective, third-party certification for lighting that minimizes glare, reduces light trespass and doesn't pollute the night sky.
The American Medical Association has raised concerns about exposure to blue-rich white LED lighting, which can damage human retinas, create road hazards and disrupt nocturnal animals. The report "Human and Environmental Effects of Light Emitting Diode Community Lighting" recommends "minimizing and controlling blue-rich environmental lighting by using the lowest emission of blue light possible."
Dark skies above Colorado Plateau will have a huge economic impact on Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, according to a Missouri State University study. Tourists from around the world will spend nearly $2.5 billion visiting national parks in the Colorado Plateau, creating more than 52,250 jobs.
Increased visitation will also affect rural areas by providing a steady source of income for local businesses and employees during the off-peak season, according to the study.
"Many in the world have lost their view of the Milky Way," study authors David Mitchell and Terrel Gallaway write. "For them a dark sky is as exotic a sight as a herd of bison or a glacial lake."
The economic impact does not include additional tourism dollars generated from visits to Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management lands, including Utah's Bears Ears or Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, the latter of which is larger than the state of Delaware. Cedar Breaks National Monument near Cedar City recently celebrated being designated an International Dark Sky Park, the seventh in Utah to win this honor.
The Colorado Plateau is among the nation's last remaining dark-sky regions. Its low population density, large swatches of public lands, arid climate and high elevation lend themselves to superior night views, said Bettymaya Foott, global coordinator for the U. academic consortium and coordinator for the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative, which provides educational materials and promotes initiatives.
"There is social shift toward appreciating the importance of dark skies," she said. "Today, there is a greater understanding that this is something worth protecting."
To further dark-sky protections, the U. consortium is bringing together more than 25 universities, industries, community and government partners to take part in researching light pollution. The consortium also has partnered with ALAN (Artificial Light at Night) to host a global conference at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort in November 2018.
Stephen Goldsmith, consortium co-director and associate professor of city and metropolitan planning at the U., said in a statement when the consortium was announced in February: "The related trans-disciplinary subjects of research, both abundant and complex, make the consortium a critically important resource for communities in the developed and developing world."
A sampling of events throughout Utah to see the stars in coming weeks:
Wednesdays, 8 to 11 p.m. • Star Party when skies are clear; University of Utah South Physics Observatory, 115 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City; free
Thursdays and Saturdays, 6:45 p.m. • Viewing dark skies; Clark Planetarium, 110 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City; $2
Saturday, April 29, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. • Astronomy Day, Clark Planetarium; free
Saturday, May 6, 6:45 p.m. • Gateway to the Stars program, Clark Planetarium; $2
May 14-20 • Amazing Earthfest, Kanab; http://amazingearthfest.com