Strong Visitor Support for Steps to Limit Light Pollution

In a world where excess light is wiping out our views of the stars at a startling pace, parks can protect natural darkness. But do nighttime visitors support the changes parks must make to bring back dark night skies? We didn’t know until we asked them.

By Jessica Weinberg McClosky

Cluster of people around telescopes, bathed in red light beneath a starry sky featuring a breathtaking view of the Milky Way galaxy.
Star viewing party at Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah. Red lights help people see where they're going while preserving their night vision. The vertical cluster of stars on the right in the picture is the Milky Way, our galaxy. It's invisible to most people in the U.S. because of light pollution.

Image credit: NPS

If you live in the United States, chances are the night sky hasn’t wowed you lately. More than 99 percent of U.S. residents live in areas affected by light pollution. Over 80 percent can’t see the Milky Way. Researchers expect those numbers to keep climbing. People are using ever more energy lighting up the sky rather than areas where they need light. And all that excess light at night isn’t just obscuring our views of the heavens; it's disrupting human health, wildlife, and even plants.

This is where parks come in. Depending on their size and what surrounds them, they may offer significantly more natural darkness than the places where we live. But they still have outdoor lighting for nighttime visitors. Effective solutions abound for maintaining useful light while reducing light pollution, but park managers often fear that changes to existing lighting will be unpopular. So researchers from Utah State University and the National Park Service's Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division teamed up to find out if that was true. In a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Management, they asked nighttime visitors what they thought about sustainable lighting strategies. The study authors learned that those strategies are in fact remarkably popular. Their results pave the way for parks to protect even more of the night sky.

A “Massive Effort”

The study’s scientists also wanted to more broadly understand how visitors value dark skies. “One of the things that we knew going into this project, both scientifically and anecdotally,” explained lead author Adam Beeco of the National Park Service, “was that visitors really like to look at the stars at night. But we didn't know how supportive they may be of any management actions related to protecting dark skies.” Other study goals were to learn how many nighttime visitors were doing things that depend on natural darkness—like stargazing or astrophotography—and to identify opportunities for reaching out to visitors.

Map of Utah with nine parks outlined in red. Most are clustered in the southeast corner of the state, except for Antelope Island State Park in the north-central part. An inset shows Utah relative to the western U.S., right in the center.
Map of Utah with study parks outlined in red: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef national parks; Natural Bridges National Monument; Antelope Island, Dead Horse Canyon, Fremont Indian, and Goblin Valley state parks. See Figure 1 in the paper.

Image credit: NPS

The research team surveyed visitors in nine national and state parks in Utah—one of the darkest states in the continental U.S. and a popular astrotourism destination. “We developed questions that were directly related to the recommendations that we and others make about lighting color, lighting intensity, and those sorts of things,” said Beeco. The team also questioned visitors about what they do in the parks at night and what night-sky related topics they wanted to learn more about.

“This was not daytime sampling where you can get 700 contacts in a day.”

In 2021, Utah State University research technicians visited sites like visitor centers, campgrounds, and overlooks from an hour before sunset to three hours after. They surveyed a sizeable sample of 776 people. “Amazingly, this was all during COVID,” noted Sharolyn Anderson, a National Park Service physical scientist and study co-author. “This was a massive effort on the part of our partners to go to so many different parks, so many different nights, different seasons…to get such a large sample,” added Beeco, “because this was not daytime sampling where you can get 700 contacts in a day.”

Surprisingly Robust Support

The research team found that more than half of nighttime visitors to Utah parks take part in dark sky-dependent activities. Beeco said one of the things they were really interested in was whether visitors who just happened to be there at night felt differently from those specifically there for nighttime recreation. “What we found here is differences may exist,” he said. “But those differences may not be material to park management goals, because that support exists across the board.”

Between 85 and 89 percent of respondents supported all but one action. Seventy four percent supported even the least popular action.

The extent of support for all the night sky-friendly management actions in the survey surprised the research team. Between 85 and 89 percent of respondents supported all but one action. “This absolutely said visitors are supportive,” Anderson stressed. “And that was surprising since we've been told for a long time that they weren’t. But it had never been studied.”

Seventy four percent of respondents supported even the least popular action—restricting the number of lights visitors can use. “One of the things that we had in mind when we created this question was decorative lighting that visitors are bringing themselves,” Beeco said. “It surprised me that visitors were so supportive of visitor restrictions.”

Horizontal stacked bar graph showing levels of support for 7 actions to protect natural darkness. Actions are listed from most (setting lights to minimum needed brightness, nearly 90%) to least (restricting number of visitor lights, about 75%) support.
Levels of support from all surveyed nighttime visitors across all surveyed parks for seven management actions to protect natural darkness. Fewer than 10% opposed any of these actions. *Indicates actions with significantly more support from night sky-dependent visitors. Chart created with data from Table 4 in the paper.

Image credit: NPS / J. Weinberg McClosky

A Big Opportunity

Nighttime visitors also expressed considerable interest in learning more about night sky-related topics. Seventy five percent were keen to learn more about night sky viewing, and 70 percent wanted to learn about ways to improve those viewing experiences. Beeco sees a big opportunity here for parks to incorporate outreach about sustainable lighting practices into their astronomy programs. His hope is that more visitors will be inspired to try those practices at home and improve the night skies across the U.S., not just in parks.

Similar Results in Other Parks

This research has sparked other studies. The National Park Service recently teamed up with Boise State and Penn State universities to test visitor and wildlife responses to alternative lighting fixtures. They’re asking visitors at Grand Teton and Acadia national parks some of the same survey questions.

It suggests that the support for management actions they saw in Utah is similar in parks across the country.

Beeco said the results so far show similar trends, and that’s exciting because it suggests that the support for management actions they saw in Utah is similar in parks across the country. The researchers are hopeful that now, with scientific results demonstrating such robust public support, more parks will be comfortable taking steps to improve their night skies.

Two people stand below a light that is emitting an amber glow. One holds up an electronic measurement device as the other takes notes.
National Park Service staff using a hand-held spectrometer to take lighting measurements from an old light fixture slated for replacement in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Image credit: NPS / Kelsey White

That prospect keeps Anderson inspired. “It's magical to be out at night,” she said, recalling her own time spent monitoring the night sky for work. “To think that you're seeing the same sky that has been seen before—through Galileo, all the creation stories, through everything. It's just absolutely humbling and amazing.”

Smiling woman with long brown hair holds camera pointed toward yellow and red flower while crouched on the ground in a grassy field

About the author
Jessica Weinberg McClosky is assistant editor for Park Science magazine and a science communications specialist with the San Francisco Bay Area Inventory & Monitoring Network. She’s often working on either a new story map or a new issue of the San Francisco Bay Area Nature & Science Monthly Newsletter/Blog. Outside of work, Jessica enjoys nature photography and exploring new hiking trails with her family. Photo courtesy of David McClosky.

Acadia National Park, Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument more »

Last updated: March 13, 2024