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Superintendent’s View

Acadia National Park Superintendent Sheridan SteeleSuperintendent’s View: Acadia’s Night Sky Rediscovered
By Sheridan Steele
Fall/Winter 2013 Friends of Acadia Journal

Curious visitors to Acadia sometimes ask, “How big is the park?” The straightforward answer would be nearly 48,000 acres, but you could also say it’s as big as the universe—just look up on a clear night. For decades, the scenic beauty of Acadia’s landscape has attracted visitors, but in recent years the night sky has received increasing attention.

Once just a backdrop, the National Park Service (NPS) now considers the night sky an integral part of the park and is taking steps to preserve and interpret this rediscovered resource. The current NPS management policies, adopted in 2006, state for the first time that “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.”

Protecting Acadia’s night sky is particularly important because it is the only national park in the Northeast that, like more remote national parks in the West, provides the opportunity to enjoy natural darkness and a high-quality night sky. Visitors can be awed by outstanding views of the thousands of stars of the Milky Way arching over the park from horizon to horizon, a sight that two-thirds of all Americans cannot see at home due to light pollution.

As development continues to increase in surrounding communities, Acadia’s night sky is threatened. Over the past seven years, we have made an effort to measure, promote, and protect the quality of the night sky, working with gateway communities, local businesses, and other partners including Friends of Acadia. The forecast for increased light pollution is alarming, yet there are identifiable solutions and a growing number of success stories in protecting and restoring night skies. Unlike many resource management challenges at Acadia, light pollution is one of the easiest environmental problems to fix, and the natural night sky is 100% recoverable.

As with other park resources, an inventory is the critical first step toward sound, science-based decisions. We measured light pollution throughout the park to provide a baseline; currently, Acadia’s night sky ranges from a Class 3 to 4 on the Bortle scale (a measure of the night sky’s brightness, ranging from 1 to 9, with Class 1 being the brightest and least impaired).

Recognizing that Acadia’s night sky has no boundary line, we then worked with the surrounding communities to develop an understanding of the night sky’s value and ways to preserve it. As a result, in 2008 the Bar Harbor Conservation Commission led the town to adopt new outdoor lighting standards in its land use ordinance. Mount Desert and Tremont soon followed with their own lighting ordinances. All three ordinances require that outdoor light fixtures be “fully shielded” or “full cut-off” so that all light is directed downward, greatly reducing light pollution.

We then partnered with FOA, the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, and many other businesses and organizations in 2009 to inaugurate the Acadia Night Sky Festival, a five-day “community celebration to promote the protection and enjoyment of Downeast Acadia’s stellar night sky as a valuable natural resource through education, science, and the arts.” Held each September, it offers more than 40 programs for all ages and interests, including stargazing programs, lectures, films, hikes, and art exhibits. It is steadily attracting more and more visitors to the area during the fall shoulder season: this year, around 4,600 people from New England and beyond participated in the 5th Annual Acadia Night Sky Festival. Many were excited to see the Milky Way in its full splendor for the first time.

Another important step is to retrofit outdoor lights on park facilities to reduce light pollution. In 2009, the NPS received a grant from the National Park Foundation to assess the park’s outdoor lighting and complete a demonstration project. That summer, Christine Kercell, an intern from Slippery Rock University, inventoried all 829 outdoor lighting fixtures in the park and determined that 340 (or 41% of total) met the desired lighting standard as fully shielded.

This was followed by generous donations from Musco Lighting (an outdoor lighting company) and the Yawkey Foundation through FOA to replace more than 40 non-compliant lights at Blackwoods campground, with Musco Lighting providing fully shielded light fixtures and technical support, and the Yawkey Foundation funding their installation. When the project is completed next year, visitors will enjoy a markedly more starlit camping experience.

With the great cooperation of partners and surrounding communities, we are making significant strides to slow—and in some cases reverse—the impacts of light pollution. The next time you are in Acadia under a clear dark sky, don’t forget to look up—the park is bigger than you think.