Dinosaur National Monument is known for its fossils and footprints. But now it could become known for its stargazing.
The monument, which straddles the Utah and Colorado border, was designated Monday as a “dark sky park” by the International Dark Sky Association, a nonprofit certifying body based in Tucson, Ariz. and founded in 1998 to combat light pollution worldwide. This means it has characteristics that make it a stellar — excuse the pun — place to view the cosmos.
The 328-square-mile desert is hours away from Salt Lake City and Denver, and its high-elevation, arid locale means the skies above are clear.
“We’re in the middle of a dark spot,” said Sonya Popelka, a park ranger at Dinosaur National Monument. “If you look at a map, the closest towns are far enough away that the lights in those communities don’t have as much of an impact as other parks that might be closer to larger, urban areas.”
Research suggests that light pollution can lead to sleep disorders, obesity and even diabetes, so places like Dinosaur National Monument can become a reprieve from the heavy light pollution seen in cities.
The monument joins 25 other towns, parks and wilderness areas in the Mountain West that have been designated as Dark Sky Places by the International Dark Sky Association.
The National Park Service has been working towards making Dinosaur National Monument a designated dark sky park for several years, Popelka said. The agency made astronomical observations to determine darkness levels and put shields around lights to make sure they didn’t pollute the night sky.
The certification process is rigorous and requires parks to submit light management plans, install interpretive programs and provide evidence that the milky way galaxy is visible there. But Popelka said having dark skies is about more than just stargazing — it’s about health.
“Natural cycles of light and dark are something that humans have been dealing with for longer than not,” she said. “So this disconnection from the natural cycles that we feel today is something relatively new. We’re finding it actually has harmful effects on us.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.