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Utah is a dark sky haven. Will urban growth threaten its view of the stars?

Stars and the dark night skies over Little Sahara, Utah, April 23, 2018.
Bob Wick
BLM Utah
Stars and the dark night skies over Little Sahara, Utah, April 23, 2018.

Utah is celebrated for having some of the darkest skies in the U.S. In fact, it has more certified dark sky areas than any other state in the country.

Visiting these locations can offer incredible views of the night sky that are now invisible to most Americans. Light pollution is increasing at twice the rate of population growth according to the International Dark-Sky Association, and more than 80% of the country can’t see the Milky Way.

The rise of artificial light is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, but it’s been shown to impact wildlife, contribute to climate change and disrupt sleep cycles.

Paul Ricketts, director of the University of Utah’s South Physics Observatory, said most of the state’s dark sky sites are not facing an immediate threat of losing their status. But given Utah’s rapid growth, he said areas like Jordanelle State Park and Antelope Island along the Wasatch Front and Back have been the most impacted by light pollution from new developments in nearby cities.

“If we don’t start taking care of this now, the lighting is slowly going to creep higher and higher into the night sky,” he said. “Places like that are in danger to lose their night sky.”

It is possible to limit the impacts of artificial light, said Alan Eastman, chair of the Utah Chapter of the IDA. There are five principles behind the concept, including only using light when needed and bulbs that are no brighter than necessary. It should also be warmer colored and, ideally, directed away from the sky.

Steps like that don’t diminish safety or visibility, he said, but can keep light from damaging the night skies.

Many cities around the state have created dark sky ordinances to limit the kinds of lighting developments can use, including Moab, Park City and Eagle Mountain.

Helper, one of two municipalities in Utah with a dark sky designation, is also working to curb the impacts of electric light. Mayor Lenise Peterman said the area is small and rural, with about 2,100 residents, and it’s not seeing the kind of growth as other parts of the state.

But city officials still see protecting the sky as a priority, particularly as a draw for visitors. “Astro tourism” is a booming industry, she said, and a potential source of economic growth for the area. A 2019 study found visitors seeking out the night sky in the Colorado Plateau region could generate close to $6 billion over the next decade.

“Everything is always a balance,” she said. “I think working with people and laying out the expectations at the onset is critical. As long as we're doing that as a municipality, we will be positioned to protect dark skies as well as encourage business with signage and lighting that's appropriate.”

Ricketts said there is probably no way to fully restore the night sky in Utah’s urban areas, but attention to the issue now will go a long way in limiting future impacts.

Corrected: April 22, 2022 at 9:46 AM MDT
A previous version of this story misstated the number of residents in Helper.
Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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