Parks aim for dark sky designation

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The Milky Way glows above a ridge in Glacier National Park last weekend. This photo was taken at Haystack Creek along Going-to-the-Sun Road.   (Alan Anderson photo/XanderVision Imagery)

Anyone who has been to Glacier National Park’s Logan Pass on a clear moonless night can’t help becoming transfixed by the scenery overhead, where innumerable stars seem to spill forth from the smoky outlines of the Milky Way Galaxy’s Orion Arm.

It’s a view that is becoming increasingly rare, both in the United States and around the world. A study published earlier this year in the journal Science Advances concluded that one third of the Earth’s population now lives in places with enough light pollution to render the Milky Way indiscernible at night.

But after years of effort to cut down light pollution in Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park, the world’s first International Peace Park is poised to also become the world’s first International Dark Sky Preserve this week.

In an interview this spring, Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow noted the increasingly high proportion of the national and world populations that live in urban areas where only the brightest stars are able to penetrate through the glare of artificial lights.

“I think the significance for Glacier is, we know that of the 2.3 million visitors we have, a large proportion of those people are coming from those places,” Mow said.

Along with providing those visitors with the opportunity to explore and enjoy their time in Glacier, Mow also is tasked with maintaining the integrity of a varied and delicate ecosystem. Like the necessity of summer snowmelt to the park’s cold-water habitats, the night sky plays a key role in natural processes constantly unfolding throughout the park.

Many of the myriad bird species that visit each year, for example, use the stars for navigation, and insects’ well-known attraction to artificial lights can bring them — and members of the food webs they anchor — into more populated, developed areas.

Yet in the more than 1 million acres of wild landscapes within the two parks, the nights aren’t quite as dark as they once were.

Known for his decades of stunning nighttime photography in Glacier Park, John Ashley has said it took years before he started noticing the growing impacts from electric lighting in the Flathead Valley and towns across the Canadian border pushing into the skies above the park.

And while the encroachment of nearby sources of light pollution into the park can be subtle, Mow referred to studies that have shown different spectrums of electric light at night can disrupt humans’ biological rhythms as well, impacting the quantity and quality of sleep.

“Shouldn’t Glacier be a place where you can get a good night’s sleep?” he asked.

Mark Biel manages Glacier’s natural resources programs and has been working with his colleagues in Glacier and across the border for several years to pursue the first-of-its-kind designation.

“It’s one way for us to show our dedication to preserving that resource,” Biel said. “It’s important to certain species of wildlife that depend on darkness, whether it’s eating or reproducing.”

Biel expects to hear back this week after sending the joint application to the International Dark Sky Association, which has certified 37 national parks around the world, most of them in the United States. The designation isn’t official yet, and the organization could require additional measures to bring the transboundary landscape up to its standards before certifying Waterton-Glacer as a dark sky preserve.

Along with park employees and an intern funded by the Glacier National Park Conservancy to work on the designation, Biel has completed an inventory of the outdoor lights in both national parks, begun the process of retrofitting and replacing them with dark sky-friendly bulbs and fixtures, and has purchased a specialized night sky meter to measure levels of ambient light pollution.

“It’s mostly to establish a baseline,” he explained. “You do have to have a certain level of darkness in a couple areas of your park to show that you have good night sky resources already, so we document that, and then in other areas you may not have those great night skies, and you can document the progress you make to protect them.”

To achieve the designation, the parks must demonstrate their progress in recent years and commit to increasing the number of lights that use lower wattages and angle the rays toward the ground, rather than allowing them to escape as ambient light.

Within two years, Biel aims to have about a third of the outside electric lights in Glacier compliant with those “dark sky friendly” requirements, and he believes the park can eventually bump that up to 100 percent.

As a biologist who heads up Glacier’s natural resources program, Biel is well versed in the importance of darkness to the park’s various wildlife. But he said visitors also stand to gain a deeper connectivity with their environment when they step out of the electric glow of the cities.

“We’re losing touch with our ancestral roots, with our historical stories. ... We used to navigate by the stars,” Biel said. “People see that Milky Way rising for the first time, and you see that look of wonder and amazement on their face and they say, ‘What is that?’ And you say, ‘That, my friend, is the Milky Way Galaxy. That’s your home.’”

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at

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