GOLDENDALE, Wash. -- With a $1.5 million state-funded renovation set to begin next month and a newly reconfigured telescope that gives visitors much better views of the night sky, things are looking up at Goldendale Observatory State Park.
So why was it quietly dropped from the International Dark-Sky Association’s list of Dark Sky Parks late last year?
Well, that’s kind of complicated. The Dark Sky Park designation, bestowed on the park in 2010 after a yearlong effort from the nonprofit group Friends of the Goldendale Observatory, made it unique in Washington. There are no other Dark Sky Parks in the state, and only 33 others in the country. So it’s a badge of honor, designating the place as one of the country’s best to observe the night sky.
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But with that designation came responsibility. The park is obligated to include educational programming about light pollution, display International Dark-Sky Association signage, maintain approved lighting on its grounds, and file annual reports to the association about all of those efforts. Lately, there have been questions about whether its staff has lived up to those obligations.
“There are some issues with the park we’re trying to work out right now,” said John Barentine, program manager for the Tucson, Ariz.-based IDA. “And we decided the best thing to do was to suspend, without prejudice, the status.”
Those issues — whether the park’s annual reports to the IDA were up to snuff, whether there was adequate signage designating the park as a Dark Sky Park, and whether park staff were fully committed to maintaining the status — came to a head in November. That’s when Bob Yoesle, a dark-skies advocate and president of the Friends of the Goldendale Observatory, contacted the IDA alleging the observatory was out of compliance.
It’s also when Goldendale Observatory administrator Troy Carpenter told a Nov. 21 meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland that light pollution was “low on my priority list because it’s a politically charged issue and it makes us very unpopular every time we bring it up.” That quote, reported in a post on www.seattleastronomy.com that was later printed in the Goldendale Sentinel, struck dark-sky advocates as misguided.
“I think a lot of that was taken out of context,” said Lem Pratt, Goldendale area manager for Washington State Parks and Carpenter’s boss.
Carpenter, who did not respond to a request for comment on this story relayed through Pratt, wasn’t saying he’s anti-dark-skies or doesn’t care about light pollution. He was saying it’s not his role as a state-paid park administrator to take an activist stance on the matter, which has been a hot-button issue for the Klickitat County and city of Goldendale governments. He was also quoted as saying that the Friends of the Goldendale Observatory do care about the issue, and he credited them for their hard work.
Still, it struck people like Yoesle and Barentine as the wrong thing for a guy running an observatory in a Dark Sky Park to say.
“It’s flabbergasting, actually,” Yoesle said.
Barentine was more measured.
“Outside of the context that naturally would get people’s attention,” Barentine said. “It got my attention. It was said in a very public forum. ... Even with the context, it didn’t come across right.”
And all of this was happening just as the IDA was again getting an unsatisfying annual report from the observatory.
“We weren’t hearing from them with sufficient frequency,” Barentine said. “A couple of years had gone by with incomplete reports. Then last fall, the annual report was several weeks late, and that was kind of a red flag.”
The IDA can’t visit its sites annually, so it has to take the annual reports at face value unless it hears something to the contrary. When the late report finally came in, Barentine asked for Yoesle’s opinion as to its veracity and completeness. Yoesle’s response pointed out noncompliant lighting on the park site — a flag pole illuminated from the ground up and unshielded — as well as the lack of required signage and interpretative exhibits dealing with light pollution.
Pratt insists the annual reports were complete and accurate and that light-pollution education was indeed included in the park’s programming.
The IDA board, not knowing exactly what the situation on the ground really was, responded by pulling the certification last fall — temporarily, it hopes. Pratt, Barentine and Yoesle believe the communication issues can be fixed. And the renovations starting next month include plans for compliant lighting and signage.
“Difference of opinion are now coming together to make the same opinion,” Pratt said.
If the IDA criteria are met, the Dark Sky designation could be reinstated this spring, Barentine said.
And by late summer, the renovation should be complete. The $1.5 million project, part of the 2015-17 state capitol budget, will replace the entire facility except the south dome that houses the telescopes. It will include new signage, new bathrooms, new office space and nearly twice as much interior square footage. The observatory will be back on the IDA list of Dark Sky Parks, and all of the handwringing over its status will be a footnote.
“It will be like nothing ever happened,” he said.
That’s the desired outcome from the Washington State Parks perspective, said Ryan Karlson, the Olympia-based program manager for the state Parks Department.
“We certainly value the designation,” he said. “Preserving the dark sky at the Goldendale Observatory is part of our mission. ... We do see it as unique and meaningful.”
Beyond the tourism bump the park may get because of the Dark Sky status, it’s important for state facilities to model good conservation behavior, Karlson said. And it’s also helpful to have an active partnership with a group like the IDA.
“We can do a lot more with the IDA than we could by ourselves,” he said.