Towns in US West embrace starlight to pursue “dark sky economy”-Xinhua

Visitors learn that dark skies are important to the environment at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, the United States, on Nov. 10, 2022. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)

The National Park Service noted that “with the popularity of stargazing program, night walks, full moon hikes, and other such activities in parks, natural lightscapes have become an economic resource.”

FLAGSTAFF, the United States, Nov. 11 (Xinhua) — Championed by dark sky advocates and bolstered by economic incentives, towns and parks around the US West are making strides to preserve night sky views.

Flagstaff, a city of Arizona with some 80,000 residents, has achieved worldwide recognition for innovative leadership in the protection of dark skies back to the 1950s. On Oct. 24, 2001, it was recognized as the world’s First International Dark Sky City.

The certification spurred wonder, economic development and employment as tourists visit the city, surrounded by mountains, desert and ponderosa pine forests, and especially Mars Hill, where astronomer Vesto Slipher first discovered information about the velocity of galaxies from 1912 to 1914, and Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930.

On Mars Hill, there is Lowell Observatory. Established in 1894 and as one of the oldest observatories in the United States, it has become the core of the so-called “dark sky economy” in Flagstaff.

“This place is the most attractive spot for tourists in the city,” John Walk, a narrator of the observatory, told Xinhua Thursday. Even at a freezing night in northern Arizona with temperatures as low as minus three degrees centigrade, more than 100 visitors joined a star gazing tour, since the city, 1.5 kilometers away from the observatory, has very little light pollution.

Comparing to Cheyenne, Wyoming, a city of similar size, the light emitted at night in Flagstaff was approximately 14 times fainter while the geographical distance the light pollution affects in and around Flagstaff is also eight times smaller than that of Cheyenne.

Flagstaff has worked for many years to create light restrictions to protect their dark skies, such as making sure all lights in the city direct toward the ground instead of sky and using amber or yellow light instead of white light.

It brings in about 100,000 visitors a year to the observatory currently, according to the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce, and a master project designed to build the 29-million US dollars Astronomy Discovery Center by 2023 will accommodate about 150,000 more visitors each year, making it is a top destination for astrotourism.

A visitor takes photos at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, the United States, on Nov. 10, 2022. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)

The center will house the Universe Theater auditorium with a wrap-around screen and the Dark Sky Planetarium, a rooftop amphitheater that will use the famous dark skies of Flagstaff as a natural planetarium dome.

Tourism from the observatory and other local attractions are the lifeblood of the business community, said Chamber CEO and President Julie Pastrick, adding that “dark sky economy” is important for businesses in the area, particularly restaurants and businesses that have struggled recently with multi- year minimum wage hikes.

Modeled by Flagstaff, many communities in Arizona and other states in the US West, such as Utah, Colorado, Nevada and California, have started to pursue a dark sky designation from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).

The IDA, a nonprofit organization, began in Arizona 30 years ago with two friends, an astronomer and a physician. Now it boasts a 66-chapter global network and hundreds of advocates working in their own localities to preserve dark skies.

The National Park Service, an agency within the US Interior Department that manages all national parks, is also an advocate of the dark sky movement, noting on its official website that “with the popularity of stargazing program, night walks, full moon hikes, and other such activities in parks, natural lightscapes have become an economic resource.”

“Visitor facilities in communities surrounding national parks are finding that stargazing activities draw more tourists and tend to increase the length of stay and corresponding economic benefit to those communities. A small but growing number of park visitors seek ‘astrotourism’ opportunities,” it said.

Utah is leading the country in dark skies advocacy, with 27 certified dark sky places, the most of any state. The University of Utah offers a minor in Dark Sky Studies, and last year legislators passed a non-binding resolution preserving night skies after debates creating a dark sky license plate.

Torrey, 14 kilometers north of the Capitol Reef Nation Park, became Utah’s first International Dark Sky Community in January 2018. It is also the first national park gateway community to earn the designation, according to the IDA.

In the rural town with only some 200 residents, businesses found ways to cater to tourists wanting to see the night sky, said Mickey Wright, secretary of the Torrey Dark Sky Committee, a volunteer group that helps promote the town’s dark-sky initiatives.

Wright told the Salt Lake Tribune this April that a recreational vehicle park in Torrey had nine tour groups visiting to see the dark skies in one month and guide companies in the area all conduct stargazing tours equipped with telescopes.

Visitors are seen at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, the United States, on Nov. 10, 2022. (Photo by Zeng Hui/Xinhua)

In Ely, Nevada, with a population of 4,000, the Great Basin Star Train run by the Northern Nevada Railroad brings people from all over the world to this small mining town, a remote viewing area near the Great Basin National Park, an IDA International Dark sky park

In 2014, the first year, two train trips carried 127 passengers. In 2021, 47 train trips carried 2,684 passengers, according to a report of CBS. And on Sept. 21, 2021, the day tickets for 2022 went on sale, the entire 2022 season sold out in one day.

According to Nevada Northern Railway President Mark Bassett, the Star Train created two full-time positions at the railroad and generates an estimated 724,000 US dollars annually for the local economy.

Inspired by the successful efforts of many towns to improve the quality of life and generate new economic development opportunities, a massive area of ​​south-central Colorado is looking to become the darkest region in the continental United States and the largest International Dark Sky Reserve in the world.

The proposed “Dark Sky Reserve” would cover land filled by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and stretch from Poncha Pass, Colorado, in the north to Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, and includes 10 peaks over 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) high and two dozen more than 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) in elevation.

It stretches 75 miles (121 kilometers) from north to south and are 48 miles (77 kilometers) wide east-west, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Several groups, including politicians, businesses, federal agencies and local communities are joining forces to push the idea, and the coalition is hoping to submit an application to the IDA by the end of 2022.

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