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How communities in north-central Pa. are attempting to preserve a scarce resource: darkness

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Photo By Brian Reid
Eventide Light Photography
Light pollution is slowing encroaching on the Pennsylvania Wilds. Environmental groups and residents are suggesting regulations that protect night sky views and the commerce they bring.

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

Communities in north-central Pennsylvania are taking action to limit outdoor artificial lighting that is encroaching on what has become a crucial resource in the region: darkness.

Satellite data show the Pennsylvania Wilds, a rural region comprising millions of acres of mountains and forestland that feature sterling views of the night sky, is slowly being contaminated by light. To protect that darkness and the commerce it brings, the region’s environmental groups and residents are pushing for municipal ordinances that regulate light, and educating local businesses about darkness preservation.

They hope to slow a trend that has been affecting views east of the Mississippi River for decades. Pennsylvania — alongside Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin — is one of the few states with pristine views of the night sky, a dwindling resource across the world.

The PA Wilds have long been a holdout, but over the past decade, light pollution has slowly spread to the area, and after a brief dip during the pandemic, it’s creeping back up.

Brian Reid, 39, a photographer who moved back to his hometown of Emporium about a decade ago, has seen firsthand the impact of the pollution on the region.

Reid began to photograph the stars and the Milky Way core in Cameron County in 2012. In 2016 he noticed an orange glow in some photos, a sign of light pollution.

The glow made him worry about how long the darkness would remain.

“I sometimes wonder, am I taking the last shots of the Milky Way that’ll ever be seen in Pennsylvania?” he said. “It’s like taking a respectful picture of a species that’s going extinct.”He now advocates for curtailing light pollution, and takes as many photos of the night sky as possible to document its beauty while it lasts.”You see the depth and the scale of the whole universe,” he said of the brilliant celestial views.

The Pennsylvania Outdoor Lighting Council is just as determined to preserve dark skies. The group of volunteers helps municipalities draft local ordinances that regulate artificial lighting through practices such as requiring that light be shielded and directed downward.

Last year, Pittsburgh passed an ordinance to use “dark sky lighting” in city parks, facilities, and street lights.

According to a news release from the mayor’s office in August 2021, “Dark sky lighting is the use of technology, lower color temperature and shielding to minimize the use of outdoor lighting to only that needed for comfort and safety.”

“It’s a relatively easy fix that all local governments could take on,” Grant Ervin, a former senior city planning official for Pittsburgh, told Bloomberg. “It’s one of the tools that local governments have an ability to regulate and install as standard.”

Barry Johnson, a volunteer for the lighting council, mentioned that the state legislature attempted to pass a bill in 2001 to regulate state-owned outdoor lights, but the bill died in committee.

The problem with local lighting ordinances, Johnson said, is lack of enforcement. In places like Philadelphia, regulations are only enforced on a complaint basis, he said. “Usually the offender is unaware that they are offending anyone.”

A dark sky preservation success story is Potter County’s Cherry Springs State Park, located in the PA Wilds. It’s a certified International Dark Sky Park, a distinction that the International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving dark skies, gives to “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”

Cherry Springs attracts stargazers from all around the world, according to Park Manager Scott Morgan. That tourism benefits businesses in nearby towns like Coudersport, particularly on new moon nights — the darkest. Last year, more than 179,000 people visited the park, Morgan told Spotlight PA.

Chip Harrison, a member of a committee that advises the ISDA board, first found someone stargazing with a telescope in Cherry Springs in 1997. After a conversation with the amateur astronomer, Harrison, then the park’s manager, said he saw an opportunity to attract more visitors to what was then a low-use park through stargazing programs. By the time he retired years later, he was credited by local newspapers with bringing development and allure to the park.

The IDSA’s certification of the park especially boosted the park’s popularity, Harrison said. He also noted that local businesses embraced the area’s celestial claim to fame.

Dylan Setzer changed the name of a Coudersport restaurant to the Orion Inn Bar & Grill, a nod to the constellation, when he bought it in 2021, according to the Potter Leader-Enterprise. Straub Brewery, located in St. Marys, has a beer called Stellar Night.

Helping to keep the skies dark at Cherry Springs are volunteers from the Dark Sky Fund, Morgan said. The group provides funding and education to community members and businesses about benefits of reducing light pollution.

The gas industry in the area burns natural gas escaping from oil and gas wells, creating large flames and light pollution, but the Dark Sky Fund and these companies came to an informal agreement to limit flaring during new moon nights, Morgan said.

Josh Zucal, the marketing director for Cameron County, sees preserving the county’s dark skies as an opportunity for tourism.

“The inspiration came from Cherry Springs because we have areas that are just as dark,” he said.

Zucal is working with Harrison to get a potential Cameron County site officially recognized as a dark sky area by the ISDA.

Cameron County hasn’t taken steps to introduce municipal ordinances to preserve darkness yet, Zucal said, but they plan to in the near future.

Ashad Hajela is a Report for America corps member and writes about rural affairs for Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau.

SUPPORT THIS JOURNALISM and help us reinvigorate local news in north-central Pennsylvania at Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability and public-service journalism that gets results.

Ashad Hajela follows the impact of issues like broadband, education and healthcare on the fast-evolving rural central and northern Pennsylvania.