Protecting Grand Canyon’s night sky
“Eighty percent of Americans and Europeans can’t even see the Milky Way from where they live.” Tyler Nordgren, Grand Canyon Astronomer in Residence
In recent years, Grand Canyon National Park has increased its astronomy public programming with the launch of the Astronomer in Residence Program (AIR) and has curbed its light pollution within the park with improvements to light fixtures on the South Rim and at Phantom Ranch.
Both of these projects were completed with the help of Grand Canyon Conservancy, the official non-profit partner of the park.
Modeled after the long-standing Artist in Residence program, the Astronomer in Residence program seeks to bring in professional and amateur astronomers, educators and artists for short-term residencies to better inform Grand Canyon National Park’s visitors about the night sky.
“I conceived the idea for the AIR back in 2018-19,” said Grand Canyon National Park Interpretive Ranger Rader Lane, in a recent email. “Through artwork and educational outreach, the program inspires visitors to see the values of dark night skies, and spreads awareness about the threats of light pollution. The AIR program is just one of many angles the park is utilizing to quench this remarkable thirst for night sky programming in our national parks.”
The first two AIR residents, Tyler Nordgren and Dean Regas, have already seen hundreds of attendees for their public programs, according to Lane.
The next astronomer for the program is Imma Barrera, a New Jersey photographer scheduled to be at the park April 28-May 23, with two more residents later this year.
According to Nordgren, starry skies are just as alien and unique as the Grand Canyon itself to many of the public program attendees.
“Eighty percent of Americans and Europeans can’t even see the Milky Way from where they live,” he said. “The Milky Way is utterly unusual and divorced from their everyday experience. It’s just as spectacular and almost a bucket list type item as the canyon itself.”
While seeing the stars is increasingly foreign to many people, viewing them in national parks has increased in importance over the last several decades.
According to a 2013 park service study, 14 percent of visitors to Death Valley National Park placed importance on dark skies in 1990 and by 2010 that number increased to 69 percent of visitors rating the night sky as important.
Improving Grand Canyon’s night sky
Dark sky compliant is when the lighting has minimal glare while reducing sky glow and light trespass. It can be accomplished a number of ways, including shielding the fixture so it only illuminates the intended ground.
Grand Canyon’s current goal is for 90 percent of outdoor light fixtures of its inventoried 5,156 outdoor light fixtures to be dark sky compliant, which is on track for a summer completion after already reaching 69 percent compliance, according to NPS spokeswoman Joelle Baird.
“Approximately 90 new dark sky compliant fixtures were installed at the North Rim last quarter by UK Electric from Peoria, Arizona,” Baird said in a recent email. “The new barn light fixtures were primarily installed on the Grand Canyon Lodge ‘Budget Cabins.’ Other progress included confirming the lighting inventory and providing prescriptions for retrofits at Yavapai Lodge, Market Plaza and Trailer Village.”
According to the park’s annual International Dark Sky report, 280 retrofits are required for those three areas representing nearly 60 percent of the light fixtures within those areas and mostly on park concessionaire Delaware North’s land assignment.
Baird said these areas will be worked on this spring while there will be another 150 retrofits at the North Rim.
Night skies within the Grand Canyon
According to NPS Project Manager Vicky Stinson, at Phantom Ranch there are 75 total outdoor light fixtures with 50 being non-compliant — most will be retrofitted with some removed. Additional work has been completed at Tuweep on the North Rim, with its four exterior lights all now being compliant. However no retrofits have been done at Indian Garden, at this time.
“What we’re doing is looking at all the technical things that make fixtures dark sky compliant,” Stinson said. “But a big part is integrating the aesthetic design of the fixtures for appropriateness with historic structures or modern structures.”
To be compliant with the National Environmental Protection Act, the NPS has come up with a suite of light options that are appropriate both with historic structures and when selecting colors, shapes and sizes compatible with the landscape, a lot of what has been used are barn light style fixtures.
“Typically they’re sort of a dome shaped and a lot of times they’ll have a gooseneck that attaches to a building,” Stinson said. “When we first started on this project, we actually, through Grand Canyon Conservancy, were able to purchase a number of test fixtures, just to see how they look in the landscape and on the buildings and most of what we use come from a company called Barn Light Electric and use porcelain finish”.
Stinson said visitors at Indian Garden were seeing lights near Bright Angel Lodge, which was fixed by lowering the height of pole lights.
On the North Rim, visitors were seeing Yavapai Geology Museum interior lights on the South Rim. This issue was also rectified. Seemingly small changes such as this have had a large impact for visitors below the rim of the canyon, according to Nordgren, who is known to haul a 10 foot telescope on river trips.
“I still remember that first night after about a week out of sight of anything human made we came around a bend and there was Desert View Watchtower,” Nordgren said. “There was this massively bright floodlight at night and the river-runners said ‘Oh yeah, we call it the Eye of Sauron.’ You can’t get away from it if you’re anywhere within view of that tower and later I was working with the park rangers and I mentioned that, they said, ‘We’ll check that out.’ It turns out it was some random light with no shielding outside of a maintenance door that nobody knew why it was there. They turned it off and it made this incredible difference in terms of every single rafting trip that came around that bend on the river.”
Certain areas in Grand Canyon where nighttime activities need to occur such as the bus maintenance facility can still be made dark sky compliant by using adaptive controls, according to Stinson. By installing motion sensors, timers or other tools to ensure lighting there is used only when absolutely needed.
“There’s not really a lot of barriers to getting 100 percent compliant in the long run,” Stinson said. “The most challenging thing will be that once we make these changes that they don’t get changed back in the future.”
Increasing public programming and reducing light pollution in Grand Canyon National Park also has the potential to provide economic benefits to the private sector and surrounding communities as well.
Park visitors who value dark skies are projected to spend $5.8 billion over 10 years across the Colorado Plateau and create over 10,000 additional jobs each year for the area generating $2.4 billion in higher wages, according to a 2019 Missouri State University study.
Additionally, the potential economic impact of dark skies could be even greater than that because the study also did not factor visitation to other public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management or U.S. Forest Service.
For former AIR Dean Regas, reducing light pollution is something that an individual can make an impact in within their own community.
“It’s something that you can work on personally looking at your own living situations,” Regas said. “You can expand to communities figuring out how to reduce the amount of light that we’re pumping up into the air and the International Dark Sky Association is one of the best places to get started on this. Bigger cities are starting to get into this and Flagstaff is the one that led the way and now places like Pittsburgh are endeavoring to do this – it’s got me inspired.”
Grand Canyon National Park is increasing its astronomy outreach efforts with the recent purchase of 11 new telescopes for its interpretation department for use throughout the park including Phantom Ranch, according to the park’s 2021 International Dark-Sky Association report.
Grand Canyon Star Party
The annual Grand Canyon Star Party is scheduled for June 18-25 and additional Park Ranger Night Sky Programs will occur throughout the summer and fall, a schedule will be available on the park’s social media channels and website.