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Night Sky Toolbox

This toolbox provides information pertaining to the management of the night sky in wilderness. It includes law and agency policies, management guidelines and tools, examples of plans, and other resources you may find useful. In addition to the resources provided here, you may also be able to obtain advice and recommendations through discussion on Wilderness Connect. Date of last update: 12/22/10.
  1. Introduction
    "In the American West throughout the latter part of the 19th century, the conquest of the frontier by American industrial culture led to a profound sense of loss among conservation-minded individuals. They mourned the passing of a way of life and of an unspoiled grand landscape that fostered individual freedoms, simple rewards for hard work, and an intimacy with the land that was required for mere survival. The last 20 or 30 years have seen a similar or analogous rapid disappearance of a resource that was once taken for granted: the unfettered view of the universe on a dark, clear, moonless night. Today, we are on the verge of losing the pristine night sky entirely in the 48 contiguous states. However, unlike losing a species to extinction, topsoil to erosion, or yet-to-be-explored virgin lands to development, the night sky is 100% recoverable."-Dan Duriscoe.

    The preservation of the night sky and the natural rhythms that accompany these resources in the environment is critical to the preservation of wilderness character.
  2. Law and Policy
    1. The Wilderness Act
      The Wilderness Act contains both implied and stated terminology that supports protecting the night sky in wilderness areas:
      • Outstanding opportunity for solitude (§ 2(c))
      • Primeval character (§ 2(c))
      • Managed so as to preserve its natural conditions (§ 2(c))
      • Affected primarily by the forces of nature (§ 2 (c))
      • Primitive and unconfined recreation (§ 2(c))
      • No use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorized boats (§ 4(c))
      • No landing aircraft (§ 4(c))
      All of these references suggest possibilities for natural lightscapes, and therefore an environment that is not impacted by light pollution to the greatest extent possible.

      The Wilderness Act also allows for activities which may generate light that is not natural. By law, mining, commercial grazing, water developments, motorboats or aircraft, and private and state land inholdings, may be allowed and activities associated with these uses may generate light visible inside wilderness. Managers are encouraged to minimize this unnatural light when and where possible.
    2. Section 4(f) provision of the Department of Transportation Act of 1966 (codified at 49 U.S.C. 303)
      Requires that feasible alternatives or all possible planning to minimize harm be used in connection with DOT proposed projects (including FAA overflights and commercial air tour authority);
    3. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (codified at 42 U.S.C. 4371 et. seq.)
      Requires that all federal agencies analyze the potential environmental impacts from proposed projects and programs before making decisions.
    4. Agency Policy
      1. BLM
        Wilderness Manual 6340 1.6.A.2.c.ii
        The BLM does not have language in their policy specific to night skies or natural lightscapes. However this resource is a part of the whole of natural resources in wilderness and fall under the general guidance for natural resources.
      2. FWS
        610 FW 2.26 How does the Service protect natural night skies and natural soundscapes in wilderness?
        Natural night skies and natural soundscapes are aspects of wilderness character that are preserved by:
        • Evaluating potential light and noise effects of refuge management activities and commercial services in an MRA. (See section 2.12 and 610 FW 1.18.)
        • Cooperating with neighbors and local government agencies to minimize the intrusion of artificial light and unnatural sounds in wilderness areas.
        • Monitoring activities causing excessive or unnecessary artificial light or unnatural sounds in and adjacent to wilderness areas, including low-level aircraft overflights.
        Taking action to prevent or minimize artificial light and unnatural sounds that adversely affect wilderness resources or values or visitors’ enjoyment of them.
      3. FS
        FSM Manual Ch. 2320
        Forest Service policy does not specifically address night sky in wilderness. However, this value is a part of the wilderness resource and is included in the general policy guidance: "Manage wilderness to ensure that human influence does not impede the free play of natural forces or interfere with natural successions in the ecosystems." It goes on to state that wilderness should be, "managed as one resource rather than a series of separate resources."

        FSM 2310.
        The FS also provides policy for planning and management of activities on adjacent lands, "Because wilderness does not exist in a vacuum, consider activities on both sides of wilderness boundaries during planning and articulate management goals and the blending of diverse resources in forest plans. Do not maintain buffer strips of undeveloped wildland to provide an informal extension of wilderness. Do not maintain internal buffer zones that degrade wilderness values. Use the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum as a tool to plan adjacent land management."
      4. NPS
        National Park Service Management Policies (2006), section 4.10
        The Service will preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the natural lightscapes of parks, which are natural resources and values that exist in the absence of human-caused light.
        • restrict the use of artificial lighting in parks to those areas where security, basic human safety, and specific cultural resource requirements must be met;
        • use minimal-impact lighting techniques;
        • shield the use of artificial lighting where necessary to prevent the disruption of the night sky, natural cave processes, physiological processes of living organisms, and similar natural processes.
  3. Management Guidelines and Strategies
    1. Multi-agency
      1. Guidelines
        1. Beachfront Lighting Guide
          A document authored by the FWS intended for government, commercial and homeowner audiences.
        2. Wilderness Resource Stewardship Model
      2. Inventory and Monitoring
        1. Bortle Dark-Sky Scale
        2. Durisco, D.,Christian B. Luginbuhl, C. B., Moore, C. A. (2007). Measuring Sky Brightness with a Wide-Field CCD Camera. Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 119(852), 192-213.
        3. Limiting Magnitude
        4. Moore, C. A. (2001). Visual Estimation of Night Sky Brightness. George Wright Forum, 18(4), 46-55.
    2. NPS
      1. NPS Natural Lightscapes Program
      2. Inventory and Monitoring
        1. Night Sky Monitoring Plan for Southeast Utah Group Monitoring Network
  4. Research, Publications, and Other Resources
    1. Research
      1. Wilderness Experience in Rocky Mountain Park 2002: Report to RMNP.
        A USGS sponsored research program studying natural soundscapes and lightscapes and their relationship to a quality wilderness visitor experience.
    2. Articles
      1. Bortle, J. E. (2001). Introducing the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale. Sky & Telescope, February, 126-129.
      2. Burkhart, J. (2006). Sights and Sounds of Winter. Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
      3. Cinzano, P. (2006). Recent Progresses on a Second World Atlas of the Night-Sky Brightness. Presented at the meeting of the IAU Comm. 50 Working Group Light Pollution, XXVI IAU General Assembly, Praha 23 August 2006.
      4. Dark Sky Park Program
      5. George Wright Forum, Vol. 18, #4 (2001)
        This issue is devoted to night sky.
      6. Nicholas, M. (2001). Light Pollution and Marine Turtle Hatchilngs. George Wright Forum, 18(4), 77-82.
    3. Education
      1. The Benefits of a Beachfront Lighting Ordinance on Panama City, FL Beaches
        A powerpoint presentation developed by the FWS.
      2. Preserving the Dark Sky In Parks
        A 6th grade education program developed by the NPS.
    4. Miscellaneous Resources
      1. International Dark Sky Organization
      2. Dark Skies Awareness