SALT LAKE CITY — Utah tourism ads use scenic views of slick rock and mountain lakes to lure visitors to the Beehive State from around the globe. Once here, though, some are more amazed by what they see after the sun drops below the horizon.
Goblin Valley and Dead Horse Point state parks recently received certification as International Dark Sky Parks. They joined a growing list of spots in the state to receive the honor, including Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks, Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments, and Weber County's North Fork Park.
Now, many other state parks intend to follow suit. Fourteen more are under consideration by the International Dark Sky Association.
Park managers see dark skies as a resource in need of protection. They consider the silvery, starry views a rare commodity that grow more scarce by the day.
"It's so important to preserve these areas where you can still see these deep, dark skies," said Justina Parsons-Bernstein, recreation interpretation resource manager for Utah State Parks.
International Dark Sky Association certification though isn't a sure thing.
"Applications usually take two years," Parsons-Bernstein said.
Parks seeking the honor not only have to show they have a lack of overbearing illumination, but they also need to work at educating visitors about the effects of light pollution and are encouraged to install downward-pointing light fixtures.
In exchange, park staff hopes to reap benefits in the form of increased stargazer tourism.
"It will absolutely be a draw," Parsons-Bernstein said. "The more we get to be known as this giant dark sky preserve, you bet it will be a huge economic boom to the Utah tourism industry."
In some ways, Utah is uniquely positioned to claim an identity as the country's dark sky capital. A mix of topography, weather and low population density play in the state's favor, especially when compared with other places in the eastern United States.
"For the best views of night skies, you need to be high, dry and away from urban areas," Parsons-Bernstein said. "How much of Utah does that describe? A lot of it."
On Wednesday, a representative from the International Dark Sky Association paid a visit to five parks on the Wasatch Back. John Barentine wanted to see if Wasatch Mountain, Jordanelle, East Canyon, Rockport or Deer Creek State Park warrant inclusion on the organization's inventory of places with stellar nighttime views.
Those parks all have to contend with glow from nearby cities, but Barentine said that doesn't necessarily disqualify them.
"There's something very valuable about these urban-adjacent parks in that you have a large number of people in the Salt Lake City area who have ready access to all these state parks out here," he said. "It's important that some of the dark sky parks be located within short distance of cities to maximize the number of people who can come and see what that's like."
The goal, in the eyes of th International Dark Sky Association is to have people take those experiences back to their home communities. There, they can advocate for more intelligent use of outdoor lighting.
Barentine admits it's an evolving field in need of ongoing research. That's where partnerships with organizations like the National Park Service and Utah State Parks come into play.
"Trying to develop best practices with them to manage it just in the same way you'd manage a park for air and water quality," he said.
Utah has 43 state parks in total. More than a quarter of them are currently chasing dark sky certification, including Fremont Indian, Steinaker, Red Fleet, Quail Creek, Gunlock, Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Gooseneck state parks, in addition to the parks on the Wasatch Back.
Barentine said the effort shows Utahns recognize the value of what they have, even if they live in the heart of the city.
"The awareness here is better than it is in much of the rest of the country. It's connected to Utah's position in the West, and I think just a more general appreciation of the outdoors and the value of nature," he said. "It's a very different attitude than we encounter in the eastern U.S., for example."
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