As the coalfields of Southwest Virginia attempt to find new industries and businesses to revitalize the local economy, one resource presents itself readily: the night sky.
If local governments are smart, this time next year Bark Camp Lake, situated in the Thomas Jefferson National Forest between Dungannon and Coeburn, will be a dark sky park. For those unaware, a dark sky park is an area kept free of artificial light pollution in order to promote astronomy and give a clear view of the night sky. Viable locations for these parks are becoming increasingly difficult to find and therefore limits scientific research.
A study conducted last year by Science Advances found that an estimated 80 percent of Americans can’t see the night sky clearly due to artificial light obstruction or pollution. This represents a great need in areas which can offer a clear, unobstructed view of the night sky.
While generally we might think of areas such as the New River Valley of Virginia and other nearby areas as key locations for dark sky parks, these areas are generally too obstructed by artificial lighting, as well. Light pollution has become such an issue in the 21st century that there is a growing international movement to find locations designated as “dark skies,” and our area now has the opportunity to become a part of that fast-growing movement.
Bark Camp Lake’s night skies are so clear and unobstructed by lights, planes, pollution, etc. that it qualifies as a potential dark skies park, which presents an incredible advancement for the area. Ecotourism is quickly growing and for a minimal economic investment, local businesses and governments can benefit from people venturing to the area for research, stargazing and other activities. Not to mention the possibility of a Dark Skies Festival, which, if planned well, could attract hundreds if not thousands of visitors and star fanatics from across the country. Advocates have already discussed the possibility of holding a festival in October, effectively extending the tourism season for the region.
As a longtime space enthusiast and strong advocate for development in Southwest Virginia, Wise County Clerk of Court Jack Kennedy has been at the forefront of this effort. However, he hasn’t been alone. Local Eagle Scout Daniel Rose and Coeburn Boy Scouts Troop 301, with the aid of Kennedy and several NASA DEVELOP volunteers, have been pushing the application process with the International-Dark Skies Association in Tuscon, Az. Together, they have brought awareness and action to a highly beneficial possibility for Southwest Virginia, and now they need the support of local governments, organizations and residents.
Last year, two other Virginia counties, Alleghany County and Bath County, experienced a growing movement for a dark skies park there, which saw the support of local businesses, nonprofits and local residents. That idea, however, went dark in local government, seeing no further advancement towards implementation.
To see this idea fall through would be a waste of an opportune moment. UVa-Wise has continually sought ways to help the local area grow and this opportunity presents itself not only as an economic benefit, but an academic benefit for students doing research and work in astronomy. More students, community members and activists in the local area need to speak out on this issue, so that we can all benefit from the wonderful views and natural beauty of Southwest Virginia.