The following is a guest post by IDA Advocate Douglas Arion, PhD. He is also the Executive Director of Mountains of Stars, an IAU Dark Sky Ambassador, and a member of the AAS Light Pollution, Radio Interference, and Space Debris Committee.
In 2012 I launched the Mountains of Stars public science education and outreach program with the goal of changing public attitudes towards the environment using astronomy as the topical pathway (see https://www.mountainsofstars.org for more information). A big part of the program has been our partnership with the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) – the country’s oldest outdoors conservation, education, and recreation organization. The AMC maintains trail systems throughout the northeast, offers outdoor experiences and education programs, and operates lodging facilities in locations from New Jersey to northern Maine. The partnership has been particularly fruitful – as it brings us audiences and facilities through which we can reach the public and make a difference. The AMC has long offered environmental education to the public, but it had not previously offered astronomy-based programming, so the partnership has been mutually beneficial. In most years (pre-COVID), we have been able to hire undergraduate physics and astronomy students to help deliver programs. They are given training in science communication skills that improve our delivery and help create a next-generation of scientists who can successfully engage the public and who are steeped in environmental topics. So far, nearly 70,000 members of the public have participated in our programming, and over 500 students, nature educators, outdoor guides, and AMC volunteers have received training in astronomy and environmental topics through our efforts.
Since its inception, Mountains of Stars has been delivering dark-sky preservation content to the public (See Figure 1). Prior to our programs, and despite the fact that the AMC has been a leader in environmental issues, including efforts to protect forest lands and waterways, the organization was unaware of light pollution and its many impacts (outside of the obvious loss of night sky). Over the years we have been working with them, we have achieved a number of important dark-sky goals.
One of the primary AMC locations where we deliver programs is the Highland Center, located at the head of Crawford Notch in New Hampshire (mountain passes in New Hampshire are known as ‘notches’ for historical reasons), a LEED-certified facility built in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, while the building itself is environmentally friendly, the exterior lighting was, to be frank, horrible. However, then facility manager Rick McCarten was very interested in improving the facility and, in 2012, with a little coaxing, was convinced to obtain the necessary budget and replace the exterior lighting with LED-based dark-sky friendly fixtures. That work was completed in 2013, and the improvement in glare and skyglow from this project was significant and made our astronomy programming more effective. (See Figure 2).
While that project was successful, it was on a relatively small scale. And while we were delivering dark-sky preservation content to thousands of visitors, it took a long time and a lot of effort to get the AMC to take on light pollution as a significant environmental issue – akin to other areas such as air and water pollution, in which they have been active for many years. One of the keys to attaining that level of interest was leading the effort to create the AMC Maine Woods International Dark Sky Park, awarded by the IDA in the spring of 2021. That story begins with the AMC’s acquisition of some 73,000 acres of woodlands and the restoration of three major lodge, cabin, and camp facilities in what is known as the 100 Mile Wilderness along the Appalachian Trail east of Moosehead Lake in northern Maine. At an AMC event in 2013, there was a presentation about this project, and I realized that the lands they had acquired were in the last dark-sky area in the eastern US. Approaching then AMC Senior VP Walter Graff, I suggested the opportunity to create a Dark Sky Place around that area (hopefully a Reserve) and explained the environmental and economic benefits of obtaining such a designation. Walter was thoroughly intrigued. All of the AMC facilities there are off-grid and were already dark-sky compliant. It took another 8 years – but with the support of the AMC, the fine work of AMC Maine manager Jenny Ward, and the Piscataquis County Economic Development Corporation and other regional organizations, we were finally able to succeed in the creation of the Dark Sky Park. There is still the hope to expand it into a Dark Sky Reserve, especially as the AMC is in the process of acquiring additional lands bringing the preserved area to over 100,000 acres. Since this project was completed, the AMC has started to incorporate dark-sky preservation topics into its publications and public engagement efforts – a victory for our Mountains of Stars program! We have long offered observing programs and installed telescopes and other gear at all three AMC facilities in Maine: Gorman Chairback, Little Lyford, and Medawisla, where you can enjoy wonderful accommodations, great food, and outstanding outdoor activities, and a Bortle Class 1 sky!
Our most recent project addressed the largest and oldest AMC facility, the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and Joe Dodge Lodge (PNVC), located at the top of Pinkham Notch adjacent to Mount Washington – the highest peak in the northeast and world-renowned for its horrendous weather. It is a mecca for hikers and outdoors enthusiasts who flock to the area and has been a great location for us to offer our programming to visitors (see Figure 3).
PNVC and many other facilities the AMC operates are managed through cooperative agreements with organizations such as the US Forest Service, state parks, and other groups. This presents challenges in doing lighting upgrades and other facility improvements. With many legacy building structures, pathways, parking areas, and other spaces, the lighting at PNVC was particularly bad. For example, the main parking area is actually on land that used to be the roadbed for route NH 16 (prior to it being straightened and widened on a new roadbed), so the parking lot lighting was actually old roadway lighting and technically under the purview of the Dept. of Transportation. In our effort to bring all the AMC operations into dark-sky compliance and thus demonstrate that they are practicing what we preach, we recently replaced all of the outside lighting throughout the PNVC compound. Fixtures were replaced in the primary parking lot, the building entrances, and the areas around their office, maintenance, staff housing, and warehouse facilities. Rockingham Electric in Berlin, NH, supplied all of the fixtures and bulbs – and are to be commended for understanding and supporting the need for environmentally friendly lighting, including low CCT bulbs. We were able to obtain 2200K LED replacements for a number of luminaires and capped all lighting at 2700K on the buildings. This effort took advantage of several New Hampshire state rebate programs to reduce the project cost, which was paid with support from an AMC donor. Figures 4 and 5 show examples of before and after pictures of some of the replacements. Reasonable estimates show a cost savings of nearly $2500 per year in electricity.
In a recent conversation with Paul Cunha, AMC’s Vice President for Outdoor Operations, he said how impressed he was with the lighting – that it made the compound easier to navigate and far more attractive – benefits he wasn’t expecting beyond the environmental improvements and the cost savings. This kind of message needs to be spread to other organizations who can obtain these kinds of results but just don’t realize it.
As someone who has been working with organizations such as the AMC for years on dark-sky issues, I urge you all to reach out to the groups that can make a real difference in this important area. Light pollution isn’t an astronomy issue – it’s an environmental, health, and safety issue, which supports astronomy when resolved. The groups that can have the greatest impact include outdoor recreation and conservation organizations like the AMC – but also include your local parks, arboretums, nature centers, and zoos. If you are a member of or in contact with a chapter of the Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, or other such organization, write a letter, offer to give a talk, or at least press them to take on light pollution as a serious environmental matter. Explaining the environmental impact of the lighting and the electricity production and associated pollution will help them realize the breadth of impact that light pollution has. Take your message out widely to other groups that can make a difference: Visit your local schools and college campuses and talk to the environmental studies, urban studies, geography, and architecture departments. It is those individuals – and their students – who are setting the tone for the future of outdoor lighting and design and through whom we can have the long-term impact that is so dearly needed.