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The Wilderness Value of Night Skies

Full moon hike
Full moon hike at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve

"The conquest of the frontier by American industrial culture left a profound sense of loss among conservation-minded individuals. They mourned the passing of a way of life and of an unspoiled grand landscape that fostered individual freedoms, simple rewards for hard work, and an intimacy with the land that was required for mere survival. The last 20 or 30 years have seen a similar or analogous rapid disappearance of a resource that was once taken for granted: the unfettered view of the universe on a dark, clear, moonless night. Today, we are on the verge of losing the pristine night sky entirely in the 48 contiguous states." (Duriscoe, 2001)

In wilderness, we preserve more than just opportunities for backpacking and beautiful vistas: we preserve complex ecosystems, glimpses of the how the world once was, and a place where we, as individuals or as a nation, can reflect upon the paths we have taken. It is our frontier. Dark night skies are a wilderness characteristic, a part that cannot be cut out without leaving the land wanting. A traveler can trek deep into the mountains, yet still be followed by the glow of distant city lights. A single glaring light can reel back those seeking solitude or communion with nature, undoing miles of effort. The opportunity for stepping back in time, removing ourselves from evidence of human development and infrastructure, must include the nighttime hours.

Wilderness character has been identified to fall within four tangible qualities (Landres, 2008), based upon the language of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (Congress, 1964):

  • Untrammeled: unhindered and free of modern human control or manipulation
  • Natural: conditions within the range of natural variability, not modified by the effects of humans intentionally or unintentionally
  • Undeveloped: "with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable"
  • Solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation: the opportunity for humans to experience these values, unaffected by signs of modern civilization, encounters with others, or reminders that a developed society exists.

A view of the natural night sky and a landscape free of anthropogenic (human-caused) light contributes to all these qualities, but especially the "solitude or primitive and unconfined" quality of wilderness. In any culture where electricity is available, the wasteful use of outdoor light may become prevalent and an environmental problem. The distance from such outdoor lighting then becomes the factor determining whether or not anthropogenic light is present at night. It is therefore equal to the "remoteness" or distance from roads and towns. This implies that, without voluntary reductions or mitigations of wasteful outdoor lighting near their boundaries, wilderness areas must be large and contiguous to protect the view of the night sky, and the visitor must travel to the most remote places to experience pristine natural nighttime lightscape.

It need not be so: the idea of adequate protection around sensitive areas is widely accepted in ecology. An increasing number of communities near areas of exceptional night sky quality have taken steps to protect this valuable resource. Of the many factors that degrade wilderness character, wasteful or excessive outdoor lighting is the easiest to remedy, and the resource is 100 percent recoverable.


Dan Duriscoe, National Park Service, Preserving Pristine Night Skies in National Parks and the Wilderness Ethic, George Wright Forum, 2001.

Peter Landres and others, Keeping It Wild: An interagency strategy to monitor trends in wilderness character across the National Wilderness Preservation System, USDA Forest Service RMRS-GTR-212, July 2008.

Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S. C. 1131-1136), 88th Congress, Second Session, September 3, 1964

Last Updated: March 26, 2014