Star Light Star Bright

The First Star I See Tonight…

“Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at the stars because we are human?”  – Neil Gaiman

Poets, authors, painters, and musicians have dedicated masterworks to the stars for centuries. Ancient humans crafted their entire cities after the patterns of the cosmos, and some of the earliest cave artwork bears a record of their splendor. The night sky inspires us, fills us with wonder, and can change how we perceive ourselves in relation to the Universe. How tragic then that an estimated 74 percent of humans across the globe cannot see the Milky Way in their night sky? It’s no wonder that our skies have garnered quite a lot of attention in our valley recently.

What is a Dark Sky Initiative?

Chances are, you’ve heard the phrase “Dark Sky” in the news or from a neighbor this year. So, what exactly is it, and what does it mean for our community? A Dark Sky Initiative simply means a community is taking steps to resist the encroachment of harmful light pollution in their area by reducing the amount of artificial light shining into the night sky. These efforts aren’t new. Wasatch County adopted outdoor lighting regulations back in 2003 and has spent the last couple of decades working to improve them.
Light pollution or ‘sky glow’ is a common byproduct of our modern cities and has been associated with numerous detrimental health effects, from sleep disorders to obesity, to higher rates of anxiety and depression. Lower melatonin levels (the hormone triggered by low light that signals our brains to sleep) have even been linked to an increased risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease. Those are just the effects on the human body. The scope of harm for wildlife populations is incalculable.

How wonderful it is to live in the Heber Valley, where our community leaders and neighbors are taking steps to preserve our pristine night skies. It’s becoming increasingly rare to live in a place where you can see the Milky Way, and Utah has become a dark sky destination for that reason. There are only about 60 state and national parks in the U.S. with the official International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) designation, and ten of them are in Utah. Of those ten, two are in our backyard. Rockport and Jordanelle State Parks gained IDSP designation in 2021, and Wasatch Mountain State Park is seeking its own dark sky designation.
Heber City’s council members have taken on the responsibility of furthering the Dark Sky Initiatives that passed in 2019. In 2021, the City Council passed a Dark Sky Ordinance that regulated the brightness of outdoor lights in new housing developments and city infrastructure. They require outdoor lights to be hooded and shine downward at a 90-degree angle. Outdoor lightbulbs need to be 3000 Kelvin or less. (To put that in perspective, candlelight is rated at about 2200K, while LED lights are roughly 4000K or more.)
There is still much work to be done, and Council Member Ryan Stack has been a big proponent of the efforts to maintain Heber City’s dark skies. “It’s a two-pronged effort. Nothing is yet being enforced, but we’re encouraging people to act.” It’s important that community members pay attention to their own homes and neighborhood lighting. When so many lights around the valley are outdated and not currently compliant with the new ordinances, Stack notes, “It’s hard to know where to start.”
Stack wrote an essay entitled Preserving the Night Sky for the local government website, advocating for more stringent ordinances. Stack encourages community members to fill out the “Dark Sky Compliance Request Form” located on the same page. The request form lets the Council and public works departments know where locals have found redundant or unnecessary street lighting that can either be removed or retrofitted to the new standards.

According to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), streetlights produce most of the light pollution on the planet because most of them are unshielded, allowing light to travel upwards into the sky. The glare of urban light is scattered by the atmosphere, creating problematic sky glows over the cities and spreading into the wilderness. Unshielded lights are a waste of money and fossil fuels. The IDA estimates that a 100-watt lightbulb if left on every night for a year, uses up the equivalent energy of burning half a ton of coal.
Thus, Stack shared the City Council’s plan for retrofitting Heber’s streetlights. Phase One will make changes to the decorative lamp posts between 400 North and 400 South. They plan on keeping the decorative integrity of the original lights but making them compliant with the new ordinance. Phase Two will change the remaining streetlights that line both sides of Main Street. “When you come over the hill into our valley, the lights on Main Street are the first things you see,” Stack asserts. “We’re hoping to change that.”

Every Effort Matters

Efforts to preserve our night skies extend beyond the local government into our schools. The Wasatch CAPS program has also picked up the cause. Wasatch CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies) is an elite and progressive program that partners high school juniors and seniors with local business and industry mentors. They work in collaborative groups to complete real-world projects.
A team of three first-semester students, Eli Gordon, Polly Fotherinham, and Emma Anthony, chose the Dark Sky Initiative as their project. Both Eli and Polly echo the city council’s desire to aim the Dark Sky Initiatives toward positive community action. These students have put in a lot of research hours, and their enthusiasm is contagious. They hope to inspire residents to act by sharing their findings and plan to host an open house and other community events to raise awareness. Additionally, they’ve designed a logo for stickers they plan to distribute to local hardware stores. The stickers will inform the buyer which lightbulbs are dark sky compliant.
If you’d like to get a real-world example of how much of a difference the dark sky compliant lighting makes, Councilman Stack encourages locals to take a drive through the new construction around the Sawmill and Brookside developments. “Those lights are Dark Sky compliant.”

It Takes a Community

Dark Sky compliance issues have made public hearings and county planning meetings a hotbed of local debate due to a proposal submitted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in November 2022 regarding their plans to build a new temple near Heber City. The proposal applied to change local lighting codes to fit the aesthetic the Church wants, namely increasing the allowance for “up lighting” on the building, which is currently prohibited under current dark sky ordinances.
For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the building of a new temple is a welcome and comforting occasion. Some community members are afraid of how it will affect dark sky standards for more commercial development in the future — say, if more big-box stores were to come and petition to change the lighting code.
At public hearings in March and April, hundreds of people came to voice their concerns to the Wasatch County Council. One group called Save Wasatch Back Dark Skies spoke out in strong opposition to changing the lighting code for the temple. When asked, the group made it clear that they are not opposed to the LDS Church or the proposed temple but do oppose the changes that would lead to more light pollution in our valley. Save Wasatch Back Dark Skies took a recent survey of Heber Valley residents, and results show overwhelming support for leaving the current dark sky ordinances as they are or even making them stricter.

Lisa Behash, a spokesperson for Save Wasatch Back Dark Skies, was quoted by KPCW, calling the proposed changes to the ordinance “flawed” and hopes there will be more collaboration as planning for the new temple proceeds. Bahash said, “The temple has become a catalyst for the dark sky issues. But it is the dark sky ordinance that needs careful study and consideration right now, not the temple project.”

The proposed LDS temple is technically under the umbrella of Wasatch County, so the local city council has no jurisdictional power to enforce lighting, but the current proposed standards are “not ones I would recommend,” stated Councilman Stack. He’s glad the Church is amending its current proposal and hopes it will be one that takes more steps to be dark sky compliant.

The debate over the lighting code has been a great learning experience for the Wasatch CAPS students. “They’re learning to straddle the world of wanting to support a temple in the community but also wanting the dark skies and having to find a compromise,” Westin Broadbent said of the Dark Skies team. Broadbent is the Director of the CAPS program and is extremely proud of his students’ work. “It’s a hard decision, even for adults!” Broadbent laughed. “But they’re optimistic there can be a good decision that works for everyone.”

That optimism seems to have been the theme for the Wasatch County Council as they’ve listened to both sides of the issue. The Council brought in a special dark sky advisor, Dr. John Barentine, to help them draft proposed changes to the lighting code that they feel will “not unreasonably interfere with the reasonable use and enjoyment of property and astronomical observances within the county.”

Findings and final proposed changes to the dark sky ordinance were presented at a meeting on April 19th, and the council members voted in unanimous support of much clarified and stricter dark sky codes. The amendments include a definition of up lighting and a limit on how far up the building lighting can spread. The Council is still discussing what further lighting zones to adopt for the county, but the consensus from the membership is that the dark skies are worthy of being preserved. Multiple council members stated throughout the meeting that the numbers on everything proposed (i.e., lumens, candelas, kelvins) have been approximated and conservatively adopted, and if citizens feel something isn’t working, rules can be amended later.

Looking Up

This is surely just the beginning of the dark sky discussion for Heber Valley. When a recent survey was sent out regarding a request to change the Dark Sky Ordinances, some responses came from out of state, citing the dark skies as one of the reasons they value their time here.

As locals, it begs the question; do we just take our nighttime views for granted? Visitors to Heber Valley often comment on our stars. Some have never seen the Milky Way, and they describe the feeling as akin to a religious experience. On rare occasions, people have even been lucky enough to spot the Northern Lights extend into our clear night skies. Who wouldn’t want to take home that memory from their time spent here?

This isn’t an issue that will go away anytime soon. As the Heber Valley continues to grow and welcome new voices, it’s important to keep an open mind and an eye on the skies.

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