By Lee Chottiner
Robert E. Strong will never forget his first telescope.
“I had a JC Penney piece of junk telescope,” he said. “It probably had plastic lenses, and the lenses weren’t aligned. When you looked at the moon it looked like a fuzzy rainbow.”
Maybe it was a “piece of junk,” but it was enough to ignite within the boy a lifelong love for astronomy. He trained that telescope on heavenly bodies from his home in Colorado and he toted it on family vacations to Yellowstone National Park, wherever the night sky was dark and clear.
But for Strong, now 57, it was those eight years he spent in American Samoa teaching math and science that taught him how his love for the cosmos could be channeled into something important.
“I was 14 and a half degrees south the equator, [on] a mountain in the middle of the Pacific, very little light pollution,” he recalled. “I got interested in night skies not just for looking. I thought, ‘here is an opportunity. I’m south of the equator; there’s a lot of neat stuff to see; when I go back to the United States, I could take this experience back with me.’”
So he did.
Twenty-five years later, the Wheeling resident is spearheading something called the West Virginia Dark Skies Project: an effort to preserve some of the darkest skies on the East Coast, according to satellite photos—skies where the stars and moon and planets can be easily seen without interference from man-made light pollution—and to turn those dark, clear skies into a money-making tourist attraction for the state.
The effort is already paying dividends. In April, Strong received a $5,000 grant from the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. He and his wife, Elizabeth, who together run SMART Centre Market in Wheeling, an innovative science store, are using the money to finance StarWatch programs, to compile a database for area parks interested in going dark and to establish a West Virginia chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
The IDA, a recognized authority on light pollution and conservation, has set guidelines—specialized lighting fixtures and public education programs— that parks and public lands around the world must meet to become IDA-designated “dark sky parks.”
There are 25 IDA-designated dark sky parks worldwide, mostly in the United States, but only three are on the East Coast.
Strong wants to make it four. More than one third the population of the United States is within a day’s drive of West Virginia. He said many of those people are amateur astronomers who would readily visit the state if a dark sky park were nearby.
“There are lots of people interested in night time skies, a lot more than you think,” Strong said. “It would be another tourist destination; you could walk down the street and see the night time sky.”
But he said there’s another reason to preserve the state’s really dark skies: They’re so damn beautiful, even primal.
“For thousands upon thousands upon thousands of years, when you went outside [at night], what you saw was the sky,” Strong said. “You didn’t see a glow from someone else’s campfire; you saw the actual stars. You saw the Milky Way Galaxy; you could watch the planets travel; you could watch the sun rise and set; you could watch the moon go through its phases. There’s a part of us that has been doing this for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.”
As jazzed as he is about dark skies, Strong knows he must first convince people that light pollution—lighting from streets lamps, dusk-to-dawn lights that blots out the constellations—is a bad thing.
It hasn’t been easy.
He recalled going to a party in Wheeling in 1990, shortly after moving here to take a job as a physicist in a research laboratory. He found himself talking to a lawyer, and decided to pitch the idea of light pollution, asking his new friend what it would take to make it illegal to keep dusk-to-dawn lights on at night if it spilled into a neighbor’s yard?
“This lawyer looked at me and just started laughing at me,” Strong recalled; “he thought that was the funniest thing that he ever heard.”
But it’s no laughing matter for Strong. “I don’t see any difference from someone having a sprinkler system on and just letting it run into my yard. I don’t see any difference to somebody taking their garbage and just dumping it on my lawn. The only difference is when you turn off the light, there’s not sludge left.”
And it’s certainly no different, he said, than noise pollution, someone blasting music at 1 a.m. while neighbors are trying to sleep.
Many people today equate lighting with safety. But Strong claimed just the opposite is true.
“If I wanted to break into that place right over there [across from his store], if it were pitch black I’d have to bring a flashlight, and if I’m running around with a flashlight, then everybody can see me. But if there are bright lights on—glare—I can hide in the glare and I don’t have to carry a flashlight. I’ve got an extra hand to carry stuff because I don’t have to carry a flashlight anymore. So it’s a nonsensical thing.”
It’s also a waste of energy, he said.
“We’ve gotten to this point where people think that you have to have bright lights. In fact, it’s to the point where people [think] bright lights mean prosperity; bright lights mean we are here. When you see somebody with flood lights that are lighting up the side of their building, only 10-15 percent actually hits the building, the rest goes straight up to the sky.”
More efficient lights and fixtures could cut that waste, save money and reduce the glare cast out to the heavens, he said, making it possible to watch the stars on their courses from downtown Wheeling yet again.
It wasn’t so long ago when that could be done.
Strong had a friend in the local astronomy club, Cecil Gwinn, who died 10 years ago at age 83. He would entertain Strong with stories about growing up in the Friendly City, such as walking across a darkened Suspension Bridge at night to catch a movie downtown.
“He told me when you walked across the Suspension Bridge, it was pitch black,” Strong recalled. “You could look down into the river and see the nighttime sky; there were all the stars. And in the summertime when the Milky Way was visible, he said you could see the Milky Way reflected in the water. I used to sit and listen in awe to him.”
Parks going dark
Dark sky tourism is catching on here.
Strong bends the ears of state legislators whenever he can. He’s talked up the idea to the Division of Tourism, and he’s starting to hear these same officials loop the idea back to him.
One thing they like most about it is its price tag: almost nil. That’s because many of West Virginia’s state and county parks are dark already—out in the middle of nowhere with little light pollution from nearby towns.
The trick is to keep it that way.
“If we don’t screw it up and we stay just the way we are, this will be easy to do,” Strong said. “If we wait for 20 years and keep doing bad lighting then this isn’t going to happen. Then we’ll look just like everybody else.”
At least two parks in the Northern Panhandle have already gotten the message.
In Brooke County, Brooke Hills Park near Wellsburg was officially designated as a “Dark Sky Preserve and the first Dark Park in the Mountain State” in 2004 by then-Gov. Bob Wise. With Strong’s guidance, the park replaced the bulbs at its driving range, miniature gulf course and street lamps. The new fixtures illuminate the ground, not the sky.
The park also plays hosts to Strong’s sky watching events.
“They still come out the third Friday of every month and they star watch, which is open the public,” said Park Manager Janice McFadden. “Being a dark park allows them to visually see the night sky without interference the lighting.”
But Brooke Hills is not an IDA-designated dark park. Further, Strong, who holds stargazing programs there, said nighttime conditions there are being comprised by lighting put in place for the gas and oil industry. (There is a gas site on park property, some 300 yards from the activities center, but McFadden said it’s dark at night unless crews are working there.)
Meanwhile, Strong is working with Grand Vue Park in Marshall County to become the state’s first IDA-designated dark sky park. The park, which sits 1,250 feet above sea level and has virtually no lighting of its own, appears to be a good candidate for the designation.
Grand Vue Park Manager Craig White is attracted by the novelty of a dark sky park.
“Any time I have the opportunity to do something that would be different and set us apart from somebody else, I am all in favor of doing that,” White said. “That’s why we did the zip line.
“One of the things that’s appealing about this project is we have no lights right now,” he continued. New lighting is already included in the park’s recently adopted 10-year master plan.
White said Strong is guiding the park through the IDA’s application process, which generally takes a year to complete.
East Coast opportunity
The IDA defines a dark sky park as “a public 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.”
The IDA has an 11-page set of guidelines that parks must follow to receive its designation. Generally speaking, though, applicants must:
• Establish a lighting plan that meets IDA quality standards;
• Ensure that at least two thirds of existing lighting meets those standards and have a plan to bring the rest into compliance;
• Offer a program of interpretation for visitors and outreach to the public beyond the park;
• Assure that night sky quality meets its bronze designation tier (it also has silver and gold star tiers); and
• Secure “broad community support” for a Dark Sky Park.
Establishing an IDA-designated dark sky park on the East Coast isn’t easy, according to IDA Program Manager John Berentine.
“It’s difficult to establish dark sky parks in the eastern half of the U.S. because the region east of the Great Plains to the Atlantic coast is rather heavily light polluted,” he wrote in response to an emailed question from Dateline: Wheeling. “In a sense, it’s more important to do the conservation work out there than it is here in the West, where we have a relatively large number of dark places left. And it also makes dark locations in the eastern U.S. a little more special as a result.”
Which makes West Virginia really special. It one of the few pitch black spots on the east Coast one sees when looking at a satellite image.
While much of the state is already dark, Strong warned that this, like any other natural resource, could be lost if not preserved.
“We could lose that, just like we can lose our waterways, we can lose our forests; we can lose our birds, Strong said. “All you have to do is put up a bunch of dusk-to-dawn lights and we could lose the last thing West Virginia has: It has dark skies; it has really wonderful dark skies.”