Blinded by the Light

A new survey reveals that in America's national parks, darkness no longer descends upon the land

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Midnight in Yellowstone National Park. A sequined sky provides God's own scrim for an all-you-can-stare night show. Meteors flare, the Milky Way glows, and geysers shoot up like silvery, vaporous ghosts. That is, except at the park's main attraction, Old Faithful, where the pumped-up lumens of more than a dozen halide parking-lot lights create a brittle mile-wide glare that obliterates the heavens' mysterious and beautiful backdrop. In the faux glow, even the moon itself vanishes.

Lovers of darkness call this light pollution, and although it's been wrecking night skies for decades, only recently have environmentalists started worrying about its effects in pristine areas. Last March, the National Parks and Conservation Association, a private watchdog group, released the results of its first analysis of light pollution. Conclusion: Glare emitted by towns up to 150 miles away obscures the stars above two-thirds of the 189 American parks surveyed—a long-distance phenomenon called "skyfog."

While the effects of this newly recognized pollution can be a real mood-killer for tourists, the impact on park denizens can literally be lethal. In Hawaii's Haleakala National Park, endangered dark-rumped petrels become so disoriented by streetlights that they dash themselves against the windshields of passing cars. In National Capital Region Park, night-blooming water lilies wilt under the 24-hour, dirty-orange wattage of Washington, D.C. And every summer at Florida's Gulf Islands National Seashore, hundreds of sea turtle hatchlings shake the eggshells from their eyes and scuttle toward the distant lights of beachfront bars. Cut off from the ocean, most are picked off by hungry birds or toasted by the sun.

Fortunately, there are signs of a more enlightened approach. Congress is now debating a national parks appropriations bill that includes a bribe-the-bad-guys provision. The proposal would create a pot of money to pay businesses outside of parks to turn off or shield their most egregiously bright bulbs. Meanwhile, the forces of darkness seem to be gaining the upper hand in Yellowstone. This spring, park administrators plan to install lower-wattage bulbs in the parking lot near Old Faithful. Few other parks, however, have similar plans in the works. "With light pollution, we're at the same stage of awareness we were with air pollution 40 years ago," notes Dave Simon, NPCA's southwest regional director. "It's not viewed as a crisis yet. But if we don't protect our dark skies, they'll literally fade away."

Troubled Waters

"Al Gore wasted $7 million worth of water during a drought," growls Steve Duprey, chairman of New Hampshire's Republican Party. "He should pay back every penny!" Welcome to the most frivolous campaign scandal (so far) of the upcoming election season: Floodgate. The ruckus began on July 22, when the ever-sporty VP showed up for a canoe trip along the Connecticut River near Cornish, New Hampshire, to publicize an $800,000 federal grant for riparian conservation. Despite the drought, the river was running high—thanks to a decision by officials at the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to reschedule the dam release of 500 million gallons of water (a normal release for that time of year) several hours before Gore's launch. State Republicans immediately declared the allegedly squandered water an "illegal campaign contribution." While the FEC investigates, the VP's office seems unfazed: "This was an official visit, not a campaign stop," says Gore spokesman Roger Salazar. "There's no issue."