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Star Light, Star Not-So-Bright: Astrotourists Stymied By Wildfire Smoke

A dirt road heads towards a red, rocky landscape under a spread of stars. The outlines of the Milky Way Galaxy are clearly shown across the sky.
Diana Robinson
The Milky Way Galaxy over Mexican Hat Rock, Utah.

News Brief

Tourists travel from around the world to experience the Mountain West’s dark sky parks and Idaho’s dark sky reserve. From these remote landscapes, you can see stars you couldn’t over bright city lights, and remember how small we are in the grand scheme of things. That is, until wildfire season.

Wildfire smoke makes it harder to see stars when it gets thick. It filters the light they emit, the same way it turns the sun orange.

Dark Ranger Telescope Tours in southern Utah depends on those stars, as it aims to teach people about astronomy, science and light pollution.

“The one night we shut down, we could barely see the moon through the fire smoke... I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before,” said Kevin Poe, the owner and dark ranger with the tour company.

Still, he says he’s lucky – the area near his observatory in Bryce Canyon doesn’t get much smoke. They’ve only had to refund tickets over that a few times this summer. But he says this thick smoke isn’t just bad for businesses like his, but for tourism in the region overall.

“We see astronomy tourism as another means to continue to generate revenue," Poe said. "As I’m forever telling the local communities, this is how we get somebody to spend an extra night in your motel.”

Luckily, a storm system is expected to clear up part of the region’s skies this week. But many stargazers are worried how many nights or meteor showers they might miss in the future.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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