Dark Sky Program offers unique opportunity for Nevada

Bill would help preserve rapidly disappearing resource

Despite the neon glare of Reno and Las Vegas, dark skies are an internationally famous asset of Nevada’s outdoor recreation economy, an industry that already generates $12.6 billion in consumer spending in Nevada every year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). If made law, Senate Bill 52 would help protect those dark places and create a state-level program to award “dark sky” designations to qualifying locations across Nevada.

Although there is no direct connection between SB52 and the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the IDA’s designation of Dark Sky Places is seen as a prospective model for how a state-level certification program might run. There are two locations in the state of Nevada that have been certified by the IDA as a Dark Sky Places: Great Basin National Park and Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area.

“We had been contacted by the Division of Outdoor Recreation. I understood that the idea originated with them,” said John Berantine, Director of Public Policy for the International Dark-Sky Association. “SB52 proposes setting up a similar system that applies only to the state of Nevada; it’s not something that is endorsed by IDA and we wouldn’t have any say in the criteria for the program as to how the sites would be accredited. But if this legislation becomes law and Nevada sets up its own internal system within the state for its state parks to receive a label like this, it would not preclude them from also participating in our certification program. In fact, we would encourage them to do both.”

Use the interactive map below to explore the location of the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area and Dark Sky Sanctuary.

As a result, a state-level certification program of dark sky areas could complement the work that IDA does to preserve the night sky from the effects of light pollution. Only one other state, Michigan, has passed legislation in recent years designating dark-sky preserves within its state parks and on other state-owned land. 

SB52 can not only bolster Nevada’s stake in the outdoor recreation industry, but bring an additional form of sustainable tourism to the state as well.

“Within the broader world of sustainable tourism, there is an emerging field that’s been labeled ‘Astro-tourism,’” Berantine said. “The idea around sustainable tourism is that if you maintain [a resource] in that natural condition, it remains a tourism draw and you can do that indefinitely. So Astro-tourism is an example in that if you engage in good outdoor lighting practices in the area around the protected place, you can effectively keep the night sky in that area in good condition more or less indefinitely.”

The Milky Way as seen from Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area and Dark Sky Sanctuary located in northern Washoe County, Nevada – photo: Richard Bednarski

One method of preserving natural dark skies is implementing responsible lighting practices, such as the transition from unshielded to shielded lights, as mentioned in SB52. 

“What it means to shield a light is to add some type of usually opaque material to the housing of a light fixture that limits the directions that the light emits and can travel,” Berantine said. “What we recommend is that lighting be what we call fully-shielded, meaning that all the light is directed, by design, towards the ground where it is needed and not into the night sky where it can’t serve a useful purpose.”

Checkout this interactive radiance light map

Barentine emphasizes that organizations like IDA aren’t necessarily advocating for turning out every light in a designated area. Rather, they simply call for sensible and carefully designed use of light to minimize its impacts. 

“When we think about how we operate light at night, knowing that the reason is really for human benefit in that we’re trying to enable people to move safely at night for commerce and other activities,” Barentine said. “We’re advocating for better outdoor lighting that improves visibility while minimizing the harm that we know that light potentially presents to the nighttime environment.”

Jeff Sullivan and Lori Hibbett host nighttime photography tours and workshops based out of Gardnerville, Nevada. Having photographed the Milky Way in locations across the Sierra Nevada mountains in both California and Nevada. They understand the challenges unshielded lights, particularly from far-away cities and towns, pose for their projects.

“The key for a good dark sky is you have to be far enough from major light sources. We’ve had a direct view towards Reno from way up by Gerlach and had its light dome be pretty intrusive as far as getting the Milky Way shots,” Sullivan said. “Another example is in Death Valley, which is an International Dark Sky Park according to the IDA, but if you’re up on a ridge where you have a pretty good view towards Vegas, you get a tremendous amount of light pollution from 110 miles away.”

From Gerlach, Nevada, the light of Reno is visible in the distance – photo: Lori Hibbett

The state of Nevada, however, still seems particularly well-positioned to become a leader in preserving dark skies because of its natural and geographical make up.

“A place like Nevada is in a great geographic location for [dark skies] in that there’s a lot of natural darkness and for much of the year, the weather is so good that this could be a really potentially a big draw [for Astro-tourism],” Berantine said. “The interior of the state, with its basin and range provinces, is ideal for this. You have these broad vistas that allow you to see so much of the night sky, the air quality is quite good and high altitude means that you get above more of the water vapor and the particulates in the lower atmosphere, all of which makes your night skies clearer.”

The Milky Way as seen through light clouds from Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area and Dark Sky Sanctuary located in northern Washoe County, Nevada – photo: Kurt Kuznicki

For Sullivan, the fact that dark skies are a quickly vanishing resource in other states strengthens the argument for Nevada to move forward as a dark skies leader.

“When you think about it, most people in this country don’t have dark skies, especially east of the Mississippi,” Sullivan said. “Dark skies are a resource that is vanishing rapidly and for Nevada to be sitting in the biggest contiguous area of dark skies in the lower 48, it really makes sense for Nevada to take leadership and protect that resource that it has and marketing the value that it’s worth. If we can preserve our [dark skies], we become one of the last great places to preserve that resource because once you lose it, you’re not going to get it back.” 

Although locations for dark sky designations may primarily stem from natural landscapes and public land, Nevada also has other features that can offer an advantage for nighttime photography and Astro-tourism. Sullivan suggests the Division of Minerals or the State Historical Preservation Office might know dark locations that would appeal to astro-tourists.

“The Silver State has many historic mining sites with interesting aged buildings, classic abandoned cars and mining artifacts that make excellent foreground subjects for photographers under a stunning night sky,” Sullivan wrote in an email correspondence with the Ally. “Currently these sites offer a largely untapped resource that Nevada could make greater use of, particularly during the current pandemic, as travelers place greater emphasis on remote outdoor recreation.”

The Standard Mill in Bodie, California – photo: Jeff Sullivan

Lori Hibbett believes that SB52 is a good start for Nevada to begin preserving its dark skies. However, she ultimately hopes the right stakeholders are brought into the conversation in order to make sure the Astro-tourism industry is fostered appropriately, if SB52 does go forward. 

“Nevada is uniquely placed to protect its wild spaces for economic development, which is why the Travel and Tourism Departments have to be very careful in the stewardship of this resource and how that grows,” Hibbett said. “Preservation is a key component because whenever you bring in economic development, that may defeat the purpose of the dark skies and that’s a concern for me. We’ve got very few resources in the darkest locations in Nevada, so in order to make them enjoyable to the general public you may need to put a hotel or a campground in, which could change [dark skies] significantly.” 

Hibbett cites local environmental organizations such as The Friends of Nevada Wilderness, that could be a possible resource in the discussion of preserving dark skies at the state level. Meanwhile, Sullivan believes bringing the conversation to county and city leaders can also better improve the potential effectiveness of the proposed legislation. 

“There’s a whole set of tools that you can use to help educate cities and counties on how to enable dark-sky tourism,” Sullivan said. 

Light from Tonopah, Nevada can be seem 13 miles from town – photo: Jeff Sullivan

So while the Senate Committee on Natural Resources evaluates the merits of SB52, many hope this bill will serve as a strong initial step toward preserving this underappreciated and vanishing natural resource in the state of Nevada and across the country.

“[IDA’s] position on the bill officially is that we’re neutral, but we still think it is important and we’ll encourage the places that are certified under the state system to look into our program as well, because it’s another way to elevate this resource and its value by making these public commitments to its preservation,” Berantine said. “Nevada should definitely consider that if the bill is successful, that it will make them more aware of this incredible resource that they have in their state because it’s a really magical experience and I hope more people will recognize [dark skies] as a threatened resource and support its conservation.”

“It’s important that the state of Nevada recognize its dark sky resource and it’s great that they are taking a lead from the International Dark-Skies Association by understanding the health benefits and ultimately the economic benefits,” Sullivan said. “Having this recognition put down in writing in the state legislature will help other organizations justify dedicating some resources towards the marketing of the value of our dark skies and the realization of economic gain from that value.”

“I think Nevada is small enough and hopefully nimble enough with their system that it can be done right and it could actually be the leader in this,” Hibbett said. “We have city people come join us for a night photography and they look up at the sky, a lot of them are just blown away by the amount of stars that there really are because the night sky helps to put us as a species in perspective by being able to see the immensity of this universe we’re spinning around in.”

Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Ally. Support his work.


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