- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

GOLDENDALE, Wash. (AP) - At the Pacific Northwest’s only public observatory, the first glow you see isn’t starlight, it’s lights from town.

On a recent cloudy winter night, it simply created a golden haze, but on a clear night, bright lights on streets and in parking lots reduce the ability to see the stars in deep space.

It’s called light pollution - the reason why in urban areas it’s rare to catch a meteor shower or a glimpse of the Milky Way, let alone a couple of clear constellations. Compared to Seattle or Portland or even Yakima, Goldendale’s 3,500 city residents and surrounding rural homes throw off very little light. That’s why the observatory was built there in 1973.

In fact, the Goldendale Observatory State Park just north of town is considered one of the country’s best places to find the increasingly rare real darkness required to see the brilliance of the universe twinkling in the sky. But, some locals say new regulations are needed to protect their famous dark nights.

“The sky is dying because we are polluting it,” said Bob Yoesle, an amateur astronomer and president of Friends of the Goldendale Observatory. “It’s like if we had a great lake for fishing and we were to let people dump sewage into it. The lake would be dying and we wouldn’t want that.”

Yoesle wants to see the community take steps to limit light pollution with new regulations.

Both Goldendale and Klickitat County already have light ordinances aimed at protecting the dark sky that have been in place since the early 1980s, shortly after the observatory opened there. But Yoesle said the ordinances are outdated, confusing and ineffective.

As proof, he points to the new lights installed last month in front of the Klickitat County Courthouse.

“Those lights are some of the worst I’ve ever seen, about 90 percent of the light goes outward, not down where it’s needed,” Yoesle said. “The wrong lights got put up because we have such a weak, poor ordinance.”

But Gordie Kelsey, the county public works director, said that the problem with the new lights - torch-style lamps on posts chosen for their historic style - was the manufacturer’s mistake. The county thought it had ordered light arrays that would shine downward and be compliant with the ordinance, but they ended up not meeting the code, he said.

The lights were purchased with a $68,000 grant from the state office of historic preservation to improve safety around the courthouse, Kelsey said. The building’s historic designation limited the light fixture options, he added.

To solve the problem, the county ordered shields - like lampshades that block the light from going up or out - for the fixtures that will make them compliant. After complaints from the dark-sky advocates, the county decided to turn the new lights off until the shields arrive, which should be in the next week or so, Kelsey said.

“We were planning to meet the code from the beginning, so we’re hoping to resolve this as quick as we can so we can get our lights back on,” he said.

Yoesle believes a more detailed ordinance would have helped the county get the right lights on the first try. He wants to use the mix-up as an educational example to get more people in the community thinking about how to protect their observatory and their darkness.

The observatory, run by the Washington State Parks, is a dark-sky destination for people from around the region. Troy Carpenter, the park’s interpretative specialist, said the park gets at least 20,000 visitors a year, mostly from the Seattle and Portland areas.

For many children, it’s the first time they really see the splendor of the sky, he said.

“It’s really sad to me how many kids have never seen the Milky Way,” Carpenter said.

The facility was built by the city of Goldendale as part of a deal with amateur astronomers from Vancouver who built the main telescope. They were looking for a home for the telescope and donated it to Goldendale because of the area’s dark skies and frequently clear nights. It was run by the city until state parks took over management in 1980.

Next year, the state is giving the observatory a half a million dollars worth of upgrades, including new optics for the main telescope, a viewing deck, movie projector and general facility improvements, Carpenter said.

The new taxpayer investment in the facility, Yoesle said, is all the more reason to ensure the dark sky is protected. Carpenter said that while the viewing is still good in Goldendale, there is already too much light pollution from town to get a good view of deep space objects in the southern sky, like the center of our galaxy.

Earlene Sullivan, the director of the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce, said the observatory is an important local resource that drives tourism. Investment in and protection for the observatory will benefit the community, both economically and spiritually, she said.

“When my grandkids come to visit from Portland, they say ‘Grandma, you have so many more stars than us,’” Sullivan said. “But people don’t realize that if we don’t do something, our grandchildren may not be able to lay in the grass and gaze at the stars. That’s happening all over the place, and so people are coming here to have that opportunity.”

And it is a special spot for star-gazing.

The Goldendale Observatory is one of just 15 Dark Sky Parks in the United States, as certified by the International Dark Sky Association, and the only one with a public observatory, said John Barentine, the manager of the association’s program, which is based in Arizona.

Barentine said it’s important to think of dark skies as a natural resource, like wilderness, that is important to the human experience and in need of protection.

“Once upon a time, this is something that everyone in the world had access to. It used to be that every human being shared the experience of looking up at the night sky,” Barentine said. “It’s like that Calvin and Hobbes comic, where he says, ‘I bet if everyone went out and looked at the stars, people would live a lot differently.’”

Both Sullivan and Yoesle believe people will be willing to make changes to their lighting once they understand the effects of light pollution.

“The locals take (the observatory) for granted a little bit; they think it’s always been here and it’ll always be here,” Sullivan said. “But light pollution is a big challenge.”

However, unlike other forms of pollution, the solutions are easy, Barentine said. The Dark Sky Association supports smart lighting choices that put light when and where it’s needed, he said, which saves money and energy by not wasting light lost into the sky.

“You can have dark skies and all the light you need for safety and human activities,” Barentine said.

People may feel safer with bright flood lights on at their homes and businesses, but Yoesle calls these “insecurity lights” because the glare creates shadows and actually makes it hard to see the whole area. Instead, he recommends motion activated lights.

There’s several other aspects of dark sky-friendly lights, he said. Shields, such as the county is installing, aim the light down where it’s wanted, not up and out. Warm-colored lights with an amber glow are better than cool white-blue tones.

A better ordinance for the city and county would make those requirements more clear, Yoesle said. He’s written a draft, based on a model from the Dark Sky Association.

Implementing it may take a little while, said Larry Bellamy, the Goldendale city administrator. But in the meantime, he said, the city and the county need to address their own issues and set a good example.

“First, we need to take care of our own,” Bellamy said. “Then, we can work on a voluntary, educational piece to encourage people to change out their lights.”

The Klickitat Public Utility District is taking steps to become more dark-sky friendly too, said chief engineer Ron Schultz.

All the street lights the PUD operates in Goldendale and elsewhere in the county are already dark-sky compliant, but after meeting with the Friends of the Observatory this summer, the utility now plans to change out some problematic lights it owns near the observatory next year, he said.

“I’m confident that the people in Goldendale can find solutions; the problem is daunting but it’s solvable,” Barentine said. “At the end of the day, I don’t see why anyone would be genuinely opposed to using less energy and protecting the dark sky.”

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Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, https://www.yakimaherald.com

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