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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Long views of the Buffalo National River valley unfold Nov. 18 2016 during a hike on the Goat Trail. Thao Nguyen walks along a ledge at Big Bluff, about 300 feet above the river.

Disco balls are discouraged at the Buffalo National River.

The national park recently became the first International Dark Sky Park in Arkansas and the 71st in the world.

It was a two-year effort that required getting 345 light fixtures into compliance.

So when some noisy campers at Buffalo Point illuminated a large disco ball one night on an early June weekend, they were gently informed about the park's efforts to embrace the darkness.

"We're not doing any sort of enforcement," said Cassandra Johannsen, a park ranger, when asked if the campers got a ticket. "It's just educational."

Most of the 1.2 million park visitors are there to float the Buffalo River, Johannsen said. But the park also is becoming a destination for people who want to see the stars.

"I've already noticed we've had folks come up from Little Rock and the Batesville area to do nighttime photography ... who have come exclusively for the night sky," Johannsen said. "That has been cool to see."

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A map showing the Buffalo River.

She said the park's exhausted paddlers might be oblivious to the spectacular light show going on overhead after a long day of canoeing.

"Simply sit back with your family and enjoy it and see the Milky Way, which unfortunately is something a lot of folks can't do anymore," Johannsen said.

Stretching 135 miles of the Buffalo River's length, the national park is uniquely situated to embrace the night, according to its application to be a dark-sky park.

"Due to the low population density, rural nature and large holdings of public and protected lands, park skies approach natural darkness along nearly its entire length," it reads.

There's even a website where people can monitor the two-day star-viewing forecasts for places in Arkansas, including Tyler Bend Campground on the Buffalo National River: cleardarksky.com/csk/prov/Arkansas_charts.html.

With no other dark-sky parks within hundreds of miles, the Buffalo National River can serve as a shining light, so to speak, for others, Mark Foust, the park's superintendent, wrote in a March 7 letter to the International Dark Sky Association.

"Through this designation, Buffalo National River can serve as an example and resource for other public land agencies in the region who are interested in learning about this process," he wrote. "Designation as a dark-sky park will also empower us to preserve our own skies and help to promote the mission of [the International Dark Sky Association]."

The letter was included as part of the application to become a dark-sky park.

Bruce McMath, chairman of the Arkansas Natural Sky Association, actually made the nomination. He approached park officials about the idea years ago.

"Many fixtures have been removed, filtered, replaced, shielded and/or placed on timers," McMath wrote in his nomination letter. "The park has developed an impressive suite of dark-sky programs offered by park rangers and amateur astronomers from three separate astronomy societies."

McMath said the effort to get the dark-sky park designation required replacing many light bulbs with bulbs that are under 3,000 on the light temperature Kelvin scale.

"It's a white light with a distinct yellow tinge to it," he said of the lower Kelvin bulbs. "The point here is to keep the blue light at a minimum."

Blue light is anathema to dark-sky supporters. Fluorescent bulbs, LED lights and electronic screens produce blue light, which is more energy efficient than incandescent light.

Blue wavelengths can be beneficial during the day, boosting attention, reaction times and mood, according to Harvard Medical School. But they're disruptive at night.

"Although it is environmentally friendly, blue light can affect your sleep and potentially cause disease," according to health.harvard.edu. "We may be paying a price for basking in all that light. At night, light throws the body's biological clock -- the circadian rhythm -- out of whack. Sleep suffers. Worse, research shows that it may contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity."

Blue light also can be disruptive for wildlife, McMath said.

Johanssen said LED bulbs are used in the park, but they're kept at around 2,000 Kelvin, which produces an amber light. In some places, 1-watt LED bulbs are used. It's enough light to guide campers along pathways to bathrooms or provide a glow on the back porches of cabins.

Johannsen said lights are being changed inside buildings in the park as well as outside. Some lights are on timers or motions sensors instead of being left on all the time, according to the application.

There was one unanticipated upside to the new lights.

"The amber lights attract a lot less bugs at night, so the maintenance workers have been pleasantly surprised," Johannsen said. "They're sweeping out fewer bugs."

Johannsen said the park is about two-thirds in compliance, which is within the threshold to get the dark-sky designation. She said the park will be 90% compliant within five years.

"I don't worry too much about that because I know we're going to hit it without too much trouble," said Johannsen.

The dark-sky designation doesn't restrict or control lighting in surrounding communities or on private property within the park.

On June 29, the park will host a Star Party at Tyler Bend Pavilion from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. It will include an educational astronomy program and an opportunity for all visitors to observe the night sky through binoculars and telescopes. Park workers will host weekly night-sky programs this summer at Buffalo Point.

Johannsen noted that, during the long days of summer, nighttime sky viewing is best after 10 p.m.

More information is available at nps.gov/buff.

State Desk on 06/16/2019

Print Headline: Park delights in starry, starry nights

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