Friends of Goldendale Observatory sets the record straight about the facts surrounding the loss of the International Dark Sky Park status, the inconvenient truths of Washington State Parks mismanagement, and Goldendale and Klickitat County's betrayal of their promises to protect the Observatory's night sky.
The incomparable natural beauty of the night sky is disappearing across the developed world at a record pace. Friends of Goldendale Observatory honors the intent of the amateur astronomers and the community college who built the Observatory’s telescope that it would be located where a dark night sky is valued and protected from the damaging effects of light pollution.
Following Instead of Leading
Washington State citizens acquired the Observatory in 1980 with its purchase by Washington State Parks. Since then, many communities and state and national parks – including Goldendale Observatory State Park – embraced dark sky astro-tourism and sincere advocacy for night sky conservation. However, a change in Washington State Parks leadership – combined with a Goldendale Chamber of Commerce Director opposed to lighting code enforcement, and the decades-long lack of concern for night sky protection by the local political and business community – led to an unprecedented absence of support for night sky conservation by Washington State Parks. Not only did Washington State Parks fail to put up any sign or information about the Observatory being an International Dark Sky Park, the Observatory's Area Manager and Director went so far as to disparage education and support for night sky conservation as "hippie dippy activism," a "waste of money," and "pandering to amateur astronomers."
These are profoundly ironic statements considering the Observatory's telescope was specifically located in rural area to get away from night-sky-damaging light pollution, and the Observatory wouldn't exist without the 24 inch telescope built by amateur astronomers. They are a direct result that rather than engage with the astronomy and science education community, Washington State Parks instead elected to be in a "partnership" with the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce.
Instead of promoting conservation of the night sky, Washington State Parks apparently prefers to 'pander' to the Chamber's opposition to lighting code enforcement, and echo the business community's position that the Observatory is an "amusement park," and its primary objective being to "fill up hotel and restaurant parking spaces." This preference for local economic considerations over protection of the night sky is the opposite of what most people would consider important – especially for the vast majority of people who visit the Observatory from mostly urban and suburban areas and desire a truly dark night sky astronomy experience.
The Goldendale Observatory was suspended as an International Dark Sky Park after the Washington State Park's Observatory Director Troy Carpenter failed to submit a required annual report, and publicly stated promotion of night sky conservation is "a low priority" and "very unpopular" – without a shred of evidence to support this assertion. The Observatory Director then submitted a report which included disingenuous claims regarding the provision of requisite (yet non-existent) quarterly dark-sky education programs to allegedly tens of thousands of people annually. This terse report was deemed inadequate, and the Washington State Parks Administration submitted a more detailed revised report, which also included grossly inaccurate night sky quality measurements made by the Observatory Director which indicated it no longer met Dark Sky Park criteria. At the same time, Washington State Parks officials went so far as to describe dark sky conservation and education as a "concept"... "that's not part of operating the Park" – which was inconsistent with and inappropriate for both an International Dark Sky Park and an astronomical observatory. Most significantly, the continuing failure to provide any dark sky education programs or attempts to garner community support for its conservation during the several-months-long suspension ultimately resulted in the removal of the Observatory's prestigious International Dark Sky Park designation in 2017 – the first Dark Sky Park certification ever revoked.
There are now 174 certified Dark Sky Places around the globe.
The Goldendale Observatory State Park is no longer one of them.
While Washington State Parks stated in 2019 it would correct their deficiencies and seek reinstatement of a Dark Sky Park designation, including a pledge to "work with the local community to ensure that is accomplished," it ultimately chose not to. Why? Without the benefit of knowledgeable and qualified management or leadership, and completely devoid of any statewide stakeholder input – Washington State Parks apparently came to believe it's more important to yield to the local political and business community's unwillingness to engage in truly meaningful night sky conservation, rather than to give priority to the overwhelming majority of the state's citizens desiring a dark sky astronomy experience at a facility which proudly claims to be "famous for its dark skies." The Observatory Director reassured the City and the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce they would get their 6 million dollar state-taxpayer funded facility upgrades no matter what: “Our status with a third-party organization with which we are no longer affiliated (and should not have been) has no bearing on our policies or capital project objectives.” Emphasis added.
After initially providing night sky conservation education and advocacy under previous management and staff, and then stating they would do so again under the current management and staff, Washington State Parks has abandoned interest in providing education about or promotion of the conservation of the Observatory’s night sky or to seek "robust community support for dark sky protection." The Washington State Parks Observatory Director now states “the requirements attached to the [Dark Sky Park] status were not a good fit with WA State Parks operating policy,” alleging they would “require parks staff to behave in an activist or legislative capacity.” These disingenuous and false rationales would apparently apply to any Washington State Park, and imply what's acceptable and beneficial for other public observatories, other state park systems including the adjacent state of Oregon, and the U.S. National Park Service is somehow not so good for Washington.
Thanks to Goldendale and Klickitat County,
a sign you haven't seen in Washington State...
...and apparently never will.
Since 1980 Washington State citizens and taxpayers have provided many millions of dollars for the operation of and upgrades to the Goldendale Observatory State Park and its historic telescope, yet the Park's most important asset – the quality of the night sky – is continuing to be degraded for future generations at the behest of the local political and business establishment. Therefore the failure of Washington State Parks to promote night sky conservation and protect taxpayer investments in the Observatory are a betrayal not only of the founding principles of the Observatory, but of the fiduciary responsibility to care for public assets the State of Washington has stewardship and responsibility for.
You can't fix what you don't know about. Most people in Goldendale and Klickitat County remain completely unaware of the lighting codes, and local political and business interests evidently want to keep it that way. Washington State Parks for all intents and purposes is their willing accomplice.
The reality of over 40 years' worth of unrestrained light pollution - visible as the illumination of the south side of the Goldendale Observatory on a clear moonless night - coming directly from the City of Goldendale and surrounding Klickitat County.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
For decades the City of Goldendale and Klickitat County have broken the promises under which they were entrusted with the Observatory's historic telescope, and without which the Observatory wouldn't exist – at least not in Goldendale or Klickitat County:
“Protect a dark nighttime sky and visual environment near the Goldendale Observatory” and “prevent excessive illumination, glare, and reflection in areas adjacent to astronomical research facilities, such as observatories, where such light intrusion would hinder use of sensitive optical devices.”
Goldendale and Klickitat County lighting codes.
These unfulfilled promises to protect the Observatory's night sky are a classic "bait and switch." While the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce openly proclaims their priority is to capitalize on the Goldendale Observatory as a "marketing tool" for local "economic and commercial gain" – reinforced by Washington State Park's Observatory Director stating this is "absolutely our priority" – the Chamber, Goldendale, and Klickitat County's failure to inform or educate the public about or promote the lighting codes for night sky conservation demonstrates these local political and business interests do not care about the Observatory's fundamental purposes, conserving the beauty of its star-filled night sky, or protecting the Washington State taxpayers' substantial investment in their community.
Below is a small sample of City, County, and Federal government buildings, and commercial and residential city and countryside outside lighting – much of it installed within the past two or three years – which is grossly excessive or violates the lighting code requirements for shielding of outdoor lighting. Note the proliferation of blue white "daylight" LED lighting and signage which is exceptionally damaging to the night sky. At the insistence of city-appointed lighting task force business representatives and home-grown anti-regulation business owner-politicians, draft regulations meeting night sky conserving lighting code "best practices" which addressed excessive "total area lumens," high "color temperature" lighting elements, and improper illumination of outdoor signs, were deliberately removed from the 2017 Goldendale lighting code revision. All photos were taken from April 2020 to April 2021 between 1 am and 4 am local time.
Below: "Fisheye lens" all-sky view seen from the Goldendale Observatory. The "light dome" from Goldendale extends along one-quarter or more of the southern horizon and half-way to directly overhead. The first image is the original exposure. The second image is an enhanced version to show the true extent of light pollution relative to the brightness of the Milky Way. Photo: Bob Yoesle
Most everyone who has viewed the Observatory's night sky over the years notes the light pollution has grown brighter year after year, and is located in one of the most important parts of the sky – to the south, where the center of the summer Milky Way lies.
In 2014 Observatory Director Troy Carpenter stated "there is already too much light pollution from town to get a good view of deep space objects in the southern sky, like the center of our galaxy." "The dark sky situation could be better... The reality is that you could find darker skies in this part of the state by driving up the highway a few miles… and that’s unfortunate, because, obviously, we have an observatory here. It’s not abysmal, but at the same time it’s getting worse... it’s not getting better. In the short time I’ve been here, I have been negatively affected by the light pollution… There are certain objects I wanted to show the visitors and they didn’t look right… they didn’t look good because of the washed out background light, so it’s just a real issue."
Currently beholden to the marketing priorities of the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce to support a personal website, the very same Observatory Director now states Goldendale's night sky is "beautifully dark" and claims the night sky is "even darker" following installation of LED street lights which are twice as damaging to the night sky as the fully shielded HPS street lights they replaced. And as described above, decades of uncontrolled proliferation of unshielded outdoor lighting, now compounded by bright white LED's, only adds insult to injury.
Goldendale has gone to great lengths to solicit grants in the hundred of thousands of dollars to improve its small and infrequently used municipal airport serving a few private and local business interests who apparently don't wish to have to fuel up their private planes in Dallesport 19 miles away. Goldendale and the Chamber of Commerce promote the Observatory as a "jewel" and the centerpiece of their tourism efforts. Yet Goldendale hasn't done a thing to raise funds to retrofit the extensive unshielded outdoor lighting it has allowed to violate the lighting codes for decades. The same goes for Klickitat County. Nor has Goldendale used any of the $40,000 or more per year in electricity cost savings from a 2017 LED streetlight conversion (again paid for by a state transportation improvement grant) for replacing unshielded lighting, lighting code education, or night sky conservation and support.
Given decades of neglect to protect the Observatory's night sky – and the Chamber's well-established opposition to lighting code implementation – it is paradoxical that Goldendale contracted with the Chamber of Commerce in 2020 to pursue a provisional International Dark Sky Community status to replace the Goldendale Observatory State Park's forfeited Dark Sky Park designation.
"An International Dark Sky Community is a town, city, municipality or other legally organized community that has shown exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of a quality outdoor lighting ordinance, dark sky education and citizen support of dark skies. Dark Sky Communities excel in their efforts to promote responsible lighting and dark sky stewardship, and set good examples for surrounding communities."
Flagstaff AZ, the first International Dark Sky Community, and surrounding Coconino County, strive to protect and earnestly implement this protection the historic Lowell and other nearby observatories.
If anything, Goldendale, the Chamber of Commerce, and Klickitat County have shown an exceptional lack of dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of quality outdoor lighting ordinances; and for many years have provided no public promotion of the importance of night sky conservation, and little consequential support for dark skies.
The Chamber and City of Goldendale submitted a highly embellished provisional Dark Sky Community application to the IDA that seems to have gone nowhere, and pursuit of the status has apparently ended: In order to meet a provisional status as a Dark Sky Community, Goldendale would have had to submit a plan that would bring into compliance 90% of of the accumulated non-dark-sky compliant outdoor lighting within 5 years’ time. The application would also have had to meet all of the other Dark Sky Community minimum requirements, including broad public support and outreach for night sky conservation, and have a legally effective lighting ordinance which includes regulating the color temperature of outdoor lighting, establishing effective total lumen limits per a given area, and effective regulation of illuminated outdoor signs – all features which were deliberately removed from the draft ordinance revision in 2017. And of course none of these things exist in Klickitat County's outdated 1979 ordinance.
After over 40 years of neglect of the night sky, Goldendale and the Chamber of Commerce apparently viewed a Dark Sky Community designation as something easy to accomplish, and apparently only wanted the notoriety from the designation in order to generate appropriate astro-tourism. But as with Washington State Parks, when having to honestly address and implement the requirements for night sky conservation in order to actually achieve an International Dark Sky Place status, it again seems to be no-thanks... "not a good fit."
It's the proverbial killing of the goose that lays the golden egg... Goldendale and the Chamber apparently really would be just as happy if they had an “amusement park” rather an observatory to help “fill up hotel and restaurant parking spaces” – and not have to bother with public education and support of, or pesky regulations and their enforcement for, the much needed conservation of the Observatory's natural night sky environment. Unfortunately you can’t get massive donated roller coasters or Ferris wheels, Federal construction grants, or decades of taxpayer operating funds and millions of capital improvement taxpayer dollars to foot the bill for that.
The Goldendale Observatory State Park belongs to all the citizens of Washington. The night sky of the Observatory is itself a public natural heritage, scenic, ecological, educational, and cultural resource, and merits conservation and protection for every one of us, our children, and generations to follow. The City and County have broken faith not only with the builders of the telescope and Observatory founders, they have betrayed the citizens of Washington.
Unless and until this situation changes, taxpayers, students, educators, amateur astronomers, and those coming from around the world, should consider whether they wish to patronize and support the local restaurants, gas stations, hotels, RV parks, and other entities whose only desire is to profit from the Goldendale Observatory as a tourist attraction, while failing to show any desire – let alone obligation – to protect and conserve its essential night sky quality.
Additional in-depth information on these and other issues can be found here.
Additional in-depth information on these and other issues can be found here.