University of Vermont

Ellen Rovelstad: Importance of Darkness and the Night Sky to National Park Visitors

Graduate research

Ellen Rovelstad at Grand Canyon National Park
Ellen Rovelstad at Grand Canyon National Park

The National Park Service (NPS) traditionally protects landscapes of scenic beauty, wildlife, culture, and history.  Recently, what constitutes a landscape to the NPS has been extended to include darkness and the night sky, or lightscapes. National parks, forests, wildlands, and rural communities serve as some of the last places where one can experience a natural night environment that is almost free of light pollution given off by development today.  Little is empirically known, however, about how visitors to these places value darkness and the night sky. My research attempts to both explore visitor attitudes towards darkness and the night sky and identify indicators of quality for night experiences in national parks.

Last summer, the RSENR Park Studies Lab collaborated with PhD candidate Brandi Smith and Dr. Jeffrey Hallo of Clemson University to conduct visitor surveys in several national parks about night sky viewing and associated night recreation activities (e.g., camping and night hiking).  Visitors were contacted in Acadia, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite national parks and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. These parks differ in their physical landscape, distance from large cities, extent of nighttime/night sky-related educational/interpretive opportunities, and susceptibility to light pollution.

Several surveys were administered in the study parks. One questionnaire was administered to visitors at Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Acadia national parks, and at Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Two additional surveys were administered in Acadia National Park: a lighting experiment to evaluate visitor preferences for brightness and color of campground lights, and an “observation exercise” completed by visitors. For this observation exercise, respondents were asked to 1) report whether they saw or heard items listed in the questionnaire, 2) rate the degree which seeing (or not seeing) and hearing (or not hearing) these items added to or detracted from the quality of their recreation experience, and 3) report their attitudes toward night skies and associated night recreation experiences.

Preliminary findings show that relatively few visitors reported seeing celestial objects (in part due to overcast skies), but when they did, it added a lot to the quality of their experience.  Most visitors reported that they did not see celestial objects, and this slightly detracted from the quality of their experience.  Some human-caused light sources were noticed more than others, and these sources tended to detract from visitor experiences.  Human-caused light sources that were noticed less tended to add to the quality of experiences.

Respondents reported strong agreement that stargazing is important to them, that the National Park Service should protect the ability of visitors to see the night sky (e.g., reducing human-caused light), and that the National Park Service should conduct more programs to encourage visitors to view the night sky.

These findings suggest a number of potential indicators of quality for night sky viewing and associated night recreation, such as the Milky Way and constellations, and that night recreation can be an important part of the recreation experience at national parks and related areas. This research can guide management for high quality nighttime recreation experiences, and inform good lighting practices for parks and neighboring communities.