On a warm summer night at Watoga State Park in 1966, my brother Ronnie and I laid on our backs, looking up wide-eyed at the unparalleled magnificence. I was 5 years old; Ronnie was 8. As we stared intently at the infinite expanse, we talked about how many lightning bugs each of us had caught just an hour earlier in Mom’s blue Mason jars. When the skies darkened, our words diminished until one of us whispered, “Aww, did you see that?” Ronnie and I watched in amazement for a shooting star, a streaking comet, or the Milky Way galaxy.
But most people aren’t as lucky. In the United States, more than 99% of the population lives under light-polluted skies. In North America, 80% of people can’t see the Milky Way—many will never see it in their lifetimes. “The artificial brightening of the night sky represents a profound alteration of a fundamental human experience—the opportunity for each person to view and ponder the night sky,” wrote Fabio Falchi and his colleagues in a 2016 study that published a world atlas of light pollution at night.
Light pollution, which describes the excessive or inappropriate use of artificial lights, is one of the most ubiquitous and profound ways humans have altered the environment. It affects not only our experience at night, but also human health, wildlife, and natural ecosystems. For billions of years, life on Earth has functioned on the light-dark cycle of day and night. Artificial lights disturb this cycle, affecting our ability to sleep and increasing our risk of cancer, heart disease, and obesity. Wildlife also struggles to adapt to increased light at night, especially nocturnal species. For instance, light pollution can disrupt migratory patterns for birds and alter predator-prey interactions by blinding nocturnal hunters and exposing predators who rely on darkness to hide.
Light pollution can also be fatal for insects and reptiles; millions of sea turtle hatchlings die each year because artificial lights guide them towards roads instead of the ocean. “All organisms do better in the dark with no artificial lights at night for their circadian rhythms —trees, insects, mammals, people included,” says Lynn Faust, a firefly expert based in Tennessee.
The recognition of these impacts and the acknowledgement that night is a critical resource for all drove the Watoga State Park Foundation to preserve dark skies in West Virginia. Now, five decades after that summer night, the awe-inspiring dark sky my brother and I treasured will be protected for generations to come.
West Virginia’s First International Dark Sky Parks
On October 18, 2021, Watoga State Park, along with nearby Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park and Calvin Price State Forest, became West Virginia’s first International Dark Sky Parks. These parks, which span 19,869 acres in Pocahontas County, are located in one of the darkest regions in the East. The designation was awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, that strives to protect the night skies from light pollution.
For decades, expansive night skies have drawn stargazers, astronomers, and photographers to Watoga. Jesse Thornton, a professional photographer who is known for his night shots featuring the Milky Way, was thrilled when the designation was officially announced. “We’re losing more of the night sky due to the encroachment of light pollution every year; it’s something I can see in my photography,” Thornton says. “Protecting dark areas like Watoga is becoming more important, not only for ecological reasons but for the increased interest in dark sky tourism for those of us who need to travel if we want to see the stars.”
The IDA launched the International Dark Sky Places Program in 2001 to encourage communities to protect the night skies through lighting policies and educational programs. There are currently more than 180 certified dark-sky places around the world that span five types of designations: communities, parks, reserves, sanctuaries, and urban night sky places.
The park designation specifically refers to places that have exceptional starry skies and nighttime environments that are protected for their scientific, cultural, and educational value. Watoga is now one of 82 dark sky parks in the U.S. In addition to protecting the night sky from light pollution, the new designation helps raise awareness of these parks and dark skies as resources for residents and visitors from around the world.
An Arduous Process
To obtain this designation, Mary Dawson and Louanne Fatora, two board members of the Watoga State Park Foundation, spent three years and thousands of hours in the field, on the phone, and at computer screens compiling a 105-page document as part of IDA’s rigorous application process. “These applications take years to craft and put together the necessary materials to meet IDA’s standards, and once this is complete, the park commits to serving the night sky for perpetuity,” says Ashley Wilson, IDA’s Director of Conservation and lead of its International Dark Sky Places Program.
Watoga’s application, which is publicly available, consists of letters of recommendation, sky quality surveys, light pollution maps, night sky photographs, information about educational programs and community outreach events, and a lighting management plan. Local astronomers, photographers, and other volunteers assisted Dawson and Fatora with the dark sky initiative.
Two local amateur astronomers, Michael Rosolina and J. Perez, took evening light readings at three sky-viewing locations in Watoga on five dates in 2019, 2020, and 2021 as part of the application’s sky quality surveys. They also agreed to help oversee seasonal light reading measurements in the future. “Preserving our dark night skies is of utmost importance. I would feel deprived without experiencing such a wonder,” says Perez. “It is always a humbling experience. It makes one feel insignificant in the vastness of our universe.”
Perez and Thornton also contributed dark sky photos to the IDA application, which had to include information on the location, camera make and model, and specific exposure settings. Thornton also runs astrophotography workshops at Watoga and Droop Mountain state parks, a key component of the educational programming and community outreach aspects of the IDA designation. “You need to be several miles away from city lights from any direction to capture the Milky Way on camera, and you need to be even further than that for good viewing with the naked eye,” Thornton says.
In Thornton’s photos, the brightest portion of the Milky Way is the galactic core, or center, of our home galaxy. Some 30,000 light years away, this tumultuous region features tens of millions of stars orbiting a super massive black hole and is visible to the naked eye in dark places like Watoga. “With photography, I’m drawn to extraordinary landscapes, and a backdrop that includes the Milky Way can make any ordinary landscape extraordinary.”
Along with astrophotography workshops, Watoga offers a variety of educational programs to teach visitors about astronomy, wildlife, and the multitude of ways that light pollution affects our lives and the nocturnal landscape. Several local organizations provided funds to purchase essential star-gazing equipment, such as professional telescopes, astronomy backpacks, and educational materials.
In 2020 and 2021, Watoga hosted star walks, starry night stories, and events on moths, bats, owls, and fireflies. The diverse array of species, including the presence of synchronous fireflies, contributed to the approval of Watoga as a Dark Sky Park. These fireflies synchronize their light patterns as part of their mating display, but researchers found that light pollution has contributed to population declines. Watoga is one of only four locations on public lands in the U.S. where visitors can watch synchronous fireflies put on their spectacular display.
Another critical component of Watoga’s IDA application was improving light fixtures and developing a lighting management plan. Dawson and Fatora raised grant funding from the First Energy Foundation to retrofit 170 of the 185 outdoor lights to be dark-sky compliant, reaching a 92% compliance rate, well above IDA’s standard of 67% for the initial application. By May 2022, Watoga plans to ensure the remaining 15 lights conform to dark sky standards. “Each place has a unique connection with the night sky, its environment, and local communities, so it is great to have the opportunity to shine the spotlight for places that go above and beyond what is required for the certification,” says Wilson.
A Dark Future
The IDA designation for Watoga, Droop Mountain, and Calvin Price is just part of the continued efforts to preserve and protect dark skies from light pollution. From 2012 to 2016, Earth’s artificially lit outdoor area grew by 2.2% per year. Many cities and towns have retrofitted their street and outdoor lighting to white LEDs, which reduces costs and energy consumption, but could lead to 2.5 times more light pollution.
West Virginia’s new Dark Sky parks are aware of these potential threats, and even detailed plans to discuss responsible lighting policies at town council meetings and with homeowners in Seebert, Hillsboro, and Marlinton as part of their IDA application. “After a park is certified, it continues to conserve the night sky by engaging with its neighbors, whether they are other protected areas or gateway communities, to take interest and action to help celebrate, support, and protect this natural, cultural, and precious resource,” says Wilson. “The most crucial aspect a park can provide is engaging outreach and education to raise awareness about how the excessive and wasteful use of artificial lighting is a growing, urgent, and global pollutant that must and can be feasibly addressed.”
There will likely be plenty of opportunities to have these discussions at West Virginia’s new Dark Sky Parks since visitor numbers are expected to increase as astronomers, photographers, and families are drawn to see the synchronous fireflies and starry skies. Although the impacts of the IDA designation are yet to be determined, Watoga has set the precedent for other locations in West Virginia to apply for Dark Sky status.
“West Virginia is in a unique position as one of the darkest places on the East Coast and the IDA designation will help to raise awareness of the issue with light pollution and maintain some of the night sky,” Thornton says. “I hope these efforts spearheaded by the Watoga Foundation catch on with other areas around the state.”
Doing so would go a long way towards protecting the night skies for all living things now and in the future. “Having access to the night sky keeps us attuned to the celestial dance our planet takes part in and reminds us that our lives are affected by forces much bigger than our own,” says Valerie Stimac, dark sky expert and author of Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism. She believes that dark skies should be protected “so that future generations are able to reap the psychological and physical benefits of true darkness, but also to preserve the heritage of stories told about the night sky and its impact on human history.”
I spent nearly 40 years in light-polluted urban areas around the country; I was unable to look up even once and see the stars to ponder life’s mysteries. Fortunately, a few years ago, I returned home to my beloved Watoga with its spectacular night sky vistas to lay on my back and become mesmerized once again. Now that Watoga’s dark skies are preserved in perpetuity, young and old alike can be enchanted just as Ronnie and I were some 55 years ago.
John Dean is a legal editor, journalist, and writer. His dad, Vernon, worked at Watoga for 43 years. John’s ancestors settled on land bordering the park in the early 1900s. Dark skies and synchronous fireflies are just two of the many reasons he became a member of the board of directors of the Watoga State Park Foundation.