Mesa Verde National Park is known for preserving ancient cultural sites, and now it will also protect the nighttime view of the stars.
This year, Mesa Verde was designated the 100th International Dark Sky Park, according to a park news release.
The certification recognizes the exceptional quality of the park’s night skies and provides added opportunities to enhance visitor experiences through astronomy-based interpretive programming.
“We are happy to announce our work to advance the preservation of Mesa Verde’s night skies and provide visitors opportunities to experience the wonder of starry nights,” said park Superintendent Cliff Spencer. “National parks are some of the best places in America to see a breathtaking array of stars, planets and neighboring galaxies.”
The multiyear application process included light pollution surveys, a light-source inventory, reducing outdoor lighting and using downcast lighting systems. Essential outdoor lighting was upgraded to energy-efficient bulbs, which reduces park costs.
Dark Sky parks are also seen to create economic opportunities by promoting astronomy-based tourism.
Mesa Verde’s application garnered wide community support, including from the city of Cortez, towns of Dolores and Mancos, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and the Mesa Verde Country tourism bureau.
The Dark Sky designation also serves to highlight the spiritual and practical connections the Ancestral Puebloans had with night skies and stars.
“We want to work with tribal communities to bring those stories out,” said Kristy Sholly, chief of interpretation and visitor services for the park. “That connection to Native American culture is what makes Mesa Verde such a great place.”
Mesa Verde’s exceptionally dark skies are an important part of the cultural landscape of the park that holds special significance to Mesa Verde’s 26 affiliated tribes, park officials said.
The effort to reduce light pollution at the park to earn the Dark Sky recognition was a collective effort by park staff members and the Mesa Verde Museum Association, Spencer said. Concessionaire Aramark was also committed to the goal, Sholly said.
The International Dark Sky Places Program was founded in 2001 to encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education.
The park offers public night sky programs throughout the year. But because of pandemic restrictions on gatherings, the programs were canceled in 2020. They are expected to return when it is safe for people to gather again, park officials said. Events will include a celebration of the International Dark Sky Park designation.
“Our stargazing events are very popular. There is a lot of interest out there, and we are excited for them to return,” Sholly said.
Mesa Verde now joins a growing set of 169 International Dark Sky Places in 21 countries around the world, including 37 other sites administered by the National Park Service.
The International Dark Sky certification does not carry legal or regulatory authority. The certification demonstrates a commitment by parks to improve night skies through the use of more energy-efficient, sustainable lighting. Certification also reaffirms the park’s commitment to educate the public and gateway communities about the importance of dark sky-friendly outdoor lighting and opportunities to work together toward common goals.
In 2014, Hovenweep National Monument was designated as an International Dark Sky Park. In 2019, Norwood was designated as an International Dark Sky Community. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is in the process of applying for the Dark Sky status.