NATURAL BRIDGES, Utah — In the 21st century Americans have lost silence, solitude and darkness, but now the National Park Service has new initiatives to preserve and appreciate our dark skies, especially on the Colorado Plateau.
Natural Bridges National Monument west of Blanding, Utah, has been named the world’s first Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. Visitors are encouraged not only to see the massive Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo bridges, but also to look up. At night. Into the heavens. To find our place in the universe as the ancestral Puebloans did a millennia ago.
Across the entire United States only 1 percent of National Park Service sites are as dark at night as Natural Bridges. Gordon Gower is the park’s astronomer and “Sky Ranger.” Bring a fleece jacket and a camp chair to his 16½-inch telescope, and he’ll show you galaxies.
“I want people to make a connection to the sky and to learn how the National Park Service has come to recognize that the sky is also part of our resources,” Gower says. “We’re training rangers in dark-sky interpretation. It’s just as much our job to protect the night sky as wildlife and all the rest.”
I know what he means. My career took me to other parts of the country, and the humidity east of the Mississippi River meant that at night the stars were blurs — not bright pinpoints of light. I’d look up and see mushy blackness. Half my world was gone.
At Natural Bridges, 6,500 feet in elevation, the universe awaits those who turn to the skies. Sky Ranger Gower takes complicated astronomical ideas and makes them simple. Stacks of visitor comment cards prove his success.
“Most folks only see the moon and two or three bright stars,” Gower says. “We have people come here who’ve never seen the Milky Way.”
A family from Germany wrote him about his evening program and exclaimed, “That was a night we’ll never forget.”
In fact, San Juan County, Utah, is actively promoting dark-sky tourism to Europeans and Japanese, who in their busy industrial cities can’t see what we take for granted — brilliant stars and planets moving across a black infinity.
“When I walk out at night, there’s absolute quiet and I see the Milky Way as a tangible presence,” says Jim Dougan, chief ranger at Natural Bridges. “We get more positive letters to the park’s superintendent on the Dark Sky Initiative than any other program in the park.”
A typical astronomy program starts at twilight and takes 30 to 45 minutes, but Gordon Gower’s programs last 2 to 3 hours. He has a clear ending to his presentations, but no one wants to leave. Visitors quietly ask questions and keep looking up.
Across the Colorado Plateau national parks are engaged with this new evolving mission, and park management plans include natural silence and pristine night viewing as management objectives. At Bryce Canyon, dark-sky viewing at 9,000 feet is extremely popular. During the summer 200-400 people a night will share a dozen telescopes.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park has an observatory, several telescopes and an astronomy program that began in the early 1990s.
“In the management plan, the dark sky at Chaco is an important natural resource,” Superintendent Barbara West says. “Certainly this was true for the ancestral Puebloans.”
MAY 20 ECLIPSE
Those programs happen every night in the summer, but get ready for a mega-event May 20, when parks on the Colorado Plateau and 125 national parks total will be the heart of an annular eclipse. The moon will cover 95 percent of the sun and appear to have a ring of fire. Parks in the West will be great viewing locations, and Glen Canyon will have one of the best views for this rare eclipse that will only last 3 to 4 minutes. Don’t worry. If you miss it, you’ll get another chance — in 57 years.
Staff at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area at Lake Powell are gearing up for thousands of visitors. At Lake Powell, visitors will come to the Wahweap Marina for the three-day Annular Eclipse Festival including programs at the Carl Hayden Visitor Center, the Colorado River Discovery Office and the Wahweap Amphitheater. Glen Canyon also will feature the use of solar telescopes; Sky Ranger Gordon Gower uses one at Natural Bridges. His hydrogen alpha scope lets in only one-thousandth of 1 percent of sunlight so visitors can see sunspots and prominences or fountains on the edge of the sun that are so big the entire Earth would fit under them.
Looking straight at the sun, even with an almost total eclipse, is never recommended.
“Never view the sun or a solar eclipse with the naked eye or any other optical device such as binoculars or a telescope,” says Dr. Paul Jackson, a Durango optometrist. “You may view the eclipse by constructing a pinhole camera (instructions available on the Internet) or by using welding goggles with a rating of 14 or higher.
“Failure to use proper observing methods may result in permanent eye damage and severe vision loss.”
Retired Durango astronomer Richard White concurred, and added, “This is a partial eclipse, but even viewing the rim of the sun is like looking at a blowtorch.
“The moon is passing in front of the sun, and you get a ring of fire around the edge of the moon. Do not look straight at it without eye protection. Sunglasses are not good enough.”
The exact start and maximum times of the eclipse vary depending on where you are May 20. At Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, for example, the partial eclipse will start at approximately 6:26 p.m. MDT and the annular eclipse will begin at 7:32 p.m. with the maximum annular eclipse beginning at 7:35 p.m. Totality at Natural Bridges will be 7:32 p.m., and the sun will set just before the eclipse is complete.
“This only happens once in a lifetime,” White says enthusiastically.
I asked him where he’ll be for this mega-event, and like me, he hasn’t made up his mind yet.
“Depending upon the weather, I’ll head southwest to the Four Corners. There’s a lot of open space between the Four Corners and Grand Canyon,” he says.
Or like thousands of others, head for your nearest national park or national monument. The eclipse begins over the Pacific Ocean and at 1,000 mph travels to the California coast at Redwoods National Park before racing south and east over 30 national parks in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and even into west Texas. Let park rangers help you safely view this unique phenomenon.
The National Park Service’s Dark Sky Initiative connects us with deep time. When we look up at the night sky we’re doing what humans have always done — studying stars, asking profound questions, wondering about our place in the universe.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.