For millenia now, humans have gazed up at the night sky in search of answers, clarity, and self-awareness. The night sky has always been a treasure chest of wonderment and puzzles, revealing clues not just about our past as a race, but about ourselves as well. Today, the fascination that a dark sky provides has given way to urban sprawl and modern conveniences, consistently keeping us disconnected from finding real meaning in our lives. Our historical amazement at a dark, night sky has now become nothing more than a faded photograph in our increasingly distant past. Dark skies have become a rarity not just in America, but in every developed nation, and are continuing to fade into the abyss of quite often, unnecessary illumination.
Fortunately, there are those who are willing to put everything they have into preserving the few dark skies we have left. The International Dark Sky Association encompasses just that type of people, understanding that a clear, night sky is nothing short of a national treasure. If you are not used to seeing one, this would sound like a drastic exaggeration. For those that are fortunate enough to see one regularly, or even briefly from time to time, it is very accurate statement.
Wyoming is the least populated state in the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. Therefore, you would expect dark skies to be glowing across the entire state every night. Unfortunately, Jackson Hole, Wyoming has fallen victim to keeping up with modern illumination standards in an attempt to satisfy a trendy crowd that is not used to seeing dark skies, and thus, star-filled skies are nothing more than an afterthought to Jackson Hole’s target market. This has led to bright lights spilling into the night sky for everything from lighting corporate and fast-food signs even when they are closed, to flood lights needlessly lining the town’s streets, to even one of the most remote spots in Grand Teton National Park polluting an otherwise empty night sky to light a parking lot that rarely sees anyone after dark.
Dornan’s is a very popular place for food, outdoor equipment, and even lodging. Located in what many would consider the heart, or center, of Grand Teton National Park, it is just about the only concession of any kind for miles and miles in any direction. The only other buildings nearby are the park Visitor Center and administrative buildings and ranger housing. During any day, especially through summer, Dornan’s thrives as a popular place to eat with both tourists and locals alike. After dark, however, everyone has left the premises with the exception of those lodging in their cabins and the seldom seen traveler gassing up. At night, Dornan’s can literally feel like a ghost town. Even so, two street lights flood the night sky there with light so bright that they become a nuisance for admirers of the night sky not just from nearby locations, but from across the entire valley. To remedy this type of situation, dirt-cheap fixtures are available to prevent the light from flooding into the sky and focusing it downward, where it’s actually needed. In addition, a new LED lighting system has been developed which accomplishes both goals in one. Dornan’s would be very wise to look into either of these solutions. The lights littered around the cabins pointing directly skyward are another issue. In an area such as Jackson Hole, lights should never point skyward.
Similarly, the town of Jackson has begun to abandon its roots as more chains begin moving in, insisting that their names be recognized and clearly visible no matter what time of night it is. On the north end of town, Dairy Queen has lit up the entire building, sign, and drive-thru in the absolute worst way possible. First, more lighting is sent into the sky than downward, where it is needed most. Second, two large, very bright flood lights are pointed directly into the sky, simply so that the sign is lit from the bottom. Finally, the entire parking lot and drive-thru are lit up as bright as day. All this excess light pours off not just into the sky, but to its next door neighbor as well: the National Elk Refuge. Here, a significant population of birds and animals spend their time, especially in winter when nights are longer. It is well-documented that light pollution wreaks havoc wildlife, but not just on their sleep cycles, but also on navigational control. And yet, immediately next door to a wildlife refuge, Jackson allows just about the worst example of light pollution to continue to hamper the night sky.
The town of Jackson itself is not a shining example either of preserving a dark sky. Construction recently finished on a major portion of Highway 89 as it runs through town. Here was an opportunity to embrace the night sky, however, part of the construction process has left new street lights lining the road that tragically spill light into every direction when turned on, rather than downward. In addition, Walgreens recently opened pouring light into a night sky where there was once a vacant lot, only exacerbating the problem.
The image on the right shows light emitted from Jackson, WY (top) and Flagstaff, AZ (bottom) at the exact same zoom level. As you can see, both towns are producing a very similar amount of light pollution. To the average reader, this might not seem like it’s a significant argument since both are small mountain towns, but here are a couple of statistics that show why Jackson is doing a horrible job managing its light pollution.
Jackson, WY: 2.95 square miles
Flagstaff, AZ: 63.86 square miles
Jackson, WY: 9,838
Flagstaff, AZ: 67,468
Jackson clearly has no regard for what could be an enormous marketing prospect. As the least populated state in the country, the town of Jackson has a massive opportunity to recapture its dark skies and then market them by not being just a gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, but also being an International Dark Sky City. This is a town that already receives significant traffic on their way to seeing some of America’s most amazing natural wonders and therefore could only benefit dramatically by throwing in the guarantee of seeing a bright Milky Way from the middle of town. And yet, they squander it in an attempt to try to fit in with big city crowds, paying no regard for the potential literally staring down at them each and every night. For those that say it’s not possible, consider that Flagstaff, Arizona was the International Dark Sky Association‘s first Dark Sky City worldwide, and they are roughly eight times the size of Jackson.
The changes needed to make Jackson, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, and even Yellowstone National Park all International Dark Sky Parks and Cities are minimal and very affordable. The marketing potential from such a small investment would be unfathomable, especially once neighboring parks and towns followed the example. The entire ecosystem would immediately be a go-to destination for astronomers and dark sky enthusiasts worldwide. Combined with the natural beauty that already engulfs the region, Jackson Hole, Wyoming and beyond could be a mecca of natural wonder both day and night. The only question really remaining is, Why has nothing been done yet?