Reclaiming the Stars

Justina Parsons-Bernstein and the Utah State Parks dark sky initiative

Photography and words by Austen Diamond


“What a privilege it is to frolic with goblins under the beguiling light of a billion stars,” Justina Parsons-Bernstein wrote in her journal during a stargazing party at Goblin Valley State Park.

The recreation interpretation resource manager for Utah State Parks was basking in the light show with more than 100 astro-tourists for a very special occasion. The most-dark place in the United States — upon recent testing — was celebrating its designation as an International Dark Sky Park. That’s to say that the park has taken, and will continue to take, measures to protect the night sky for present and future generations, earning a virtual seal of approval from the International Dark Sky Association (IDA).

Justina Parsons-Bernstein
Justina Parsons-Bernstein

Parsons-Bernstein, along with a slew of interns and state park managers, are currently guiding 12 state parks through the application and accreditation process. That’s more than a fourth of Utah’s 43 state parks pursuing dark sky certification. It’s a testament that Utah’s state parks are reclaiming the stars for its residents and visitors through the Utah State Parks Dark Sky Initiative.

“If we get all of these parks designated, we will be ahead of any other state park system in the world,” says Parsons-Bernstein, adding that the ongoing accreditation won’t be finalized for up to two years.

The stars are big business, as well. A recent survey found that during the next decade visits to the Colorado Plateau are expected to pump $2.5 billion into rural economies. Dark skies are a value-added experience that create demand for recreation-based tourism.

Utah’s public lands are beautiful and dramatic during the day, but they might well become famous for how awe-inspiring they are during the night.

Imagine you and your loved ones wrapped in blankets on a crisp, clear night. You are talking for hours beyond your normal bedtime, and why? Well, more than 5,000 stars can be seen, and they captivate you.

Indeed, Utah’s public lands are beautiful and dramatic during the day, but they might well become famous for how awe-inspiring they are during the night.

To become an International Dark Sky Park, according to www.darksky.org, a park must “demonstrate robust community support for dark sky protection and document designation-specific program requirements.” The Dark Sky certification process may be arduous but the reward of designation is well worth it.

“Basically, what it boils down to is that we are wasting a lot of light by pointing it to the sky, and we need to change that,” Parsons-Bernstein says. A seemingly little change to downward-facing light fixtures and bulbs with the proper lumens and wattage – which also reduces light pollution – and bring back the stars for all to enjoy.

On one sunny afternoon, the rangers at Jordanelle State Park change out light fixtures at the employee residences. Jordanelle boasts many buildings, so the rangers will be tasked with installing new lighting over the course of the summer. Some pollution is irreparable, but Parsons-Bernstein says, luckily, light pollution is a pretty easy fix. “Plus, these fixtures will save money and energy,” she adds.

Stargazing in Utah

Parsons-Bernstein remembers when, as a child, she could see the Milky Way from her backyard in Ogden, Utah. An ever-growing population and a minimal emphasis on the effects of light pollution in the decades since, and 74-percent of people around the world cannot see the Milky Way — especially not those in urban centers.

“If people can’t see the stars, they will go and find them,” Parsons-Bernstein says. “These astro-tourists are coming to Utah from all over the world, because they want to be out in the pristine darkness and see the Milky Way for themselves.”

At Utah’s abundant public lands, there’s a perfect recipe for dark sky viewing: high altitude, dry weather, low population, and distance from urban growth.

Astro-tourists are coming to Utah from all over the world, because they want to be out in the pristine darkness and see the Milky Way for themselves.

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Antelope Island State Park recently completed the Dark Sky certification process and became an IDSP in April 2017, joining the aforementioned Goblin Valley, as well as Utah’s first state park to receive the designation, during the summer of 2016, Dead Horse Point State Park.

Utah State Parks is currently celebrating its “Diamond Anniversary” of 60 years. So it’s a great year to work towards the dark sky designation. East Canyon State Park, Rockport State Park, Wasatch Mountain State Park, Jordanelle State Park, Deer Creek State Park, Steinaker State Park, Red Fleet State Park, Fremont Indian State Park, Quail Creek State Park, Gunlock State Park, and Goosenecks State Park are slated to submit their International Dark Sky Park applications in 2017.

These parks will ensure that Utah’s stars light the mind, illuminate the conversation, and brighten the vacation.

“A lot of the world lives in perpetual twilight,” Parsons-Bernstein says. “Our dark sky parks are becoming the last places where you will actually be able to see dark skies, and Utah is lucky that we are really able to see a lot. It’s the mecca of stargazing.”

Find out more information about Utah State Parks Dark Sky Initiative by visiting

www.stateparks.utah.gov/resources/utah-state-parks-dark-sky-initiative.

Austen Diamond

Austen Diamond is the former music editor of the City Weekly and a freelance writer for national and regional magazines covering arts, entertainment, food, and news. He has won numerous awards for his reporting skills from such organizations as the Society of Professional Journalists. Also an acclaimed photographer and photojournalist, he shoots creative portraiture and documentary-style work and produces 13% SALT, an online photo journal highlighting Utah's modern pioneers, subcultures and communities.

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