WASHINGTON — The National Park Service has awarded a grant to study whether the night skies above the Colorado Plateau are being polluted by light sources but some officials are skeptical the efforts are aimed at curbing energy development.
The $22,000 grant for “Estimating the Potential Value of the Night Skies above the Colorado Plateau” was awarded to two economic professors at Missouri State University to study the impact of tourism on nightly visits and will help determine whether the darkness of night skies needs special protections from the federal government.
The parks included in the study typically draw visitors during daylight hours to view exquisite sceneries, and includes the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Dinosaur National Monument and Mesa Verde in Colorado, and Grand Staircase-Escalante and other parks in Utah.
“Dark nights are a fundamental part of the natural environment, yet are severely threatened by light pollution,” said Terrel Gallaway, acting head of the university’s economic department in a statement announcing the grant.
“This light pollution does substantial damage to wildlife, aesthetics and human health. Increasingly, remote locations, such as much of the Colorado Plateau, are the only places wildlife and humans can find naturally dark night skies,” Gallaway said.
The Colorado Observer reported in May that the Obama administration had created the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division of the National Park Service with its main offices in Colorado to begin regulating the impact of light from energy development outside of national park boundaries.
Environmentalists have seized upon the issue as a new weapon in their battle against fracking and mining operations and warn that bright lights around the facilities at night are polluting parks several miles away.
The Colorado Plateau is the starting point for the agency’s “Starry Starry Night” program and part of the government’s new mission to protect darkness as a precious resource.
One federal government official says there is concern that the primary purpose of the grant is to restrict energy development including mining and drilling activities.
Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research agreed, and said there is no energy development in any national park, but the Obama administration wants to extend that to property located miles away from parks by creating a new source of concern, pollution from lights.
“Of course this administration is using every tool in its box to restrict energy development on federal land and water,” Kish said.
“Isn’t the Statue of Liberty a national park? Maybe we should shut down New York at night. Lady liberty needs her beauty sleep, and those lights from Manhattan are keeping her awake at night,” Kish said.
“The same with Washington, D.C., the entire city is a national park,” Kish said.
The Colorado Plateau stretches across 100 million acres in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, and already boasts of 40 million visits every year.
The study is expected to inform federal officials whether expanding operating hours would increase tourism, but is not expected to include indicators as to whether it should require additional infrastructure to ensure nighttime safety, such as road improvements or lighted trails.