Talk focuses on light and darkness

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Thanks a lot, Thomas Edison.

It has been more than 135 years since the Wizard of Menlo Park patented the first commercially viable light bulb, and although his invention indisputably helped bring about the modern age of electricity, it also led with a rarely discussed casualty: the stars in the night sky.

Population growth, coupled with the spread of cheap power throughout the globe, has caused light pollution to steadily increase — especially in metropolitan areas. Consequently, the most sparsely populated places in the country are also becoming destinations for watchers of the night sky, like John Ashley.

The photographer and former Glacier National Park biologist will give a talk at tonight’s meeting of Flathead Audubon, sharing his work and experiences with light trespass into the park.

“When I started photographing in Glacier at night, I didn’t notice or detect any light trespass over the horizon. That slowly came along over the last 30 years,” he said last month in an interview for his latest book, “Glacier National Park: After Dark.”

His work includes many long-exposure shots that capture the sweeping starscapes visible in the park, but that same technique can also highlight the dim sources of light pollution peaking over the mountains. He has documented such light from the small town of Babb creeping into the sky behind Chief Mountain, the glow of the Flathead Valley visible from Two Medicine Lake and the Albertan town of Cardston’s aura reflected in Glacier Park waters.

Within the park, officials are trying to lead by example on the issue.

Mark Biel, Glacier’s natural resources program manager, is working with park staff and a temporary intern, funded by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, to become certified as an “International Dark Sky Preserve,” along with Waterton Park.

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

Fireflies, he said, can’t mate as effectively absent total darkness, since their namesake lights are used to attract a partner. And the bugs that bats eat could be increasingly driven out of the forest and toward developed areas, cutting down available prey and potentially putting the winged mammals in conflict with people.

He’s still in the application process, which required the recent purchase of a special night sky meter that measures the degree of light pollution in the park. Although the park has no record to quantify how much darkness has been lost from its sky to date, the new meter will establish a baseline and measure increasing or decreasing light pollution over time.

He added that the certification won’t impact neighboring communities, but it will help bring awareness to the tools available to decrease the light trespass from fast-growing areas such as the Flathead Valley.

Ashley noted that although the amount of light escaping the valley has grown with its population, a similar situation in Tucson, Arizona, provides him with optimism. Despite its population doubling in the past 20 years, the Southwestern city has seen a net reduction in light pollution after first passing “Dark Sky Friendly” ordinances 20 years ago.

“I am hopeful about controlling light pollution and light trespass,” said Ashley, who lives in Kila. “We do have a lot of folks living in our community who are anti-anything that’s common sense, but our dark, starry night sky that we still have is a natural resource that is turning into a valuable commodity.”

While no county ordinance exists to address light pollution, Kalispell and Whitefish have both passed measures intended to reduce light pollution.

In Kalispell, that includes requiring that new residential and commercial buildings use certified light fixtures with simple accessories such as shields to keep light from being emitted upward, prohibiting high-intensity mercury vapor lights and confining landscape lighting to low-voltage fixtures.

P.J. Sorenson, a planner for the city, said the ordinance was enacted about 10 years ago and received solid support at the time.

“I think it’s made a big difference,” Sorenson said. “Where we could really tell was shortly after it was enacted and new developments were happening that had the dark sky requirements, and older ones hadn’t enacted them yet, if you were flying into town you could really visually see the difference when you were flying overhead.”

Ashley’s talk will begin today at 7 p.m. at the United Way Conference Room at the Gateway Community Center on U.S. 2 in Kalispell.

For more information, contact Flathead Audubon’s publicity chairwoman, Paula Smith, at (406) 837-0181 or by email at paulabobsmith@centurytel.net.


Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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