Dark Skies over Watoga

By Louanne Fatora 

Editor’s note: The Watoga State Park Foundation is in the middle of an effort to have Watoga State Park and the adjacent Calvin Price State Forest designated as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association.   Here one of its Board members talks about the process.  The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has written a letter in support of the application.

What is Dark Sky designation? 

The International DarkSky Association works to protect the night skies for present and future generations. An IDA, (International Dark-Sky Association) Park is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.  Dark Sky Parks are publicly or privately-owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors. 

The status of “International Dark Sky Park” is awarded to areas where the night-sky brightness is regularly equal to or darker than 20 magnitudes per square arcsecond. The land may be public or private, but there must be public access to the relevant areas. The International Dark Sky Park is granted after the park follows a rigorous application process, requiring applicants to demonstrate robust community support for dark-sky protection and document designation-specific program requirements. 

The International Dark-Sky Association is a United States-based non-profit organization and there are currently about 66 certified Dark Sky Parks in the US, and 28 in other countries around the world.

What would that mean to Watoga State Park?

Achieving an International Dark Sky Park designation brings recognition of the efforts a park has made towards protecting it’s dark skies.  It raises the awareness of dark skies among Park leadership, staff, visitors, and the surrounding community.  Watoga State Park is already a popular destination in West Virginia, and the largest of the state parks sharing about a 5 mile boundary with Monongahela National Forest. 

The International Dark-Sky Association application also includes the undeveloped Calvin Price State Forest which lies to the south of Watoga as well as nearby Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. Total acreage submitted for approval is 19,869.  Dark Sky activities will be administered through the Watoga location with an occasional Star Party at Droop Mountain Battlefield. 

Visitors to Pocahontas County seek out Watoga as a place of quiet as well as a place to view the stars and constellations. Tourism plays a vital role in the local economy and about 55% of visitors were from other states. Watoga will expect to see increased visitors specifically because of the Dark Sky designation. 

Why does Watoga deserve to earn that label? 

Until recent history, our world was mostly dark at night, but has increasingly experienced artificial lighting. The result is light pollution, defined by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) as inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light. We are fortunate that light measurements have established that Pocahontas County is in the darkest recorded zone in the Mid-Atlantic states in the US. Watoga and Droop Mountain Battlefield have recently converted about 92% of the light fixtures within the state park boundaries to be IDA compliant, a preliminary requirement before submitting the application.  

A recent West Virginia Department of Natural Resources confirmed discovery of a population of “Synchronous Fireflies” in Watoga State Park also bolsters our efforts to maintain the dark sky habitat for these fireflies as well as educating the public about their life cycle. Our educational programs convey the importance of recognizing the dark skies as a valuable resource benefitting wildlife, insects, forest health, and quality of life for all.

Was the application process difficult? 

The International Dark Sky Places certification process is modeled on other conservation and environmental designation programs, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves. Certifications are made on the basis of a written application. The International Dark-Sky Association does not select International Dark Sky Places, but rather a site is nominated by a group or individual with a comprehensive application. 

Designations almost always begin with a small group of individuals who organize to seek formal protection of their nightscape. The Watoga State Park Foundation Board, with the endorsement of park Superintendent Jody Spencer, voted to proceed with the process of Watoga becoming an IDA park.  Board members Louanne Fatora and Mary Dawson began delving into the application process over 2 years ago by obtaining community support, planning education programs, grant writing and obtaining funds to convert the park’s entire light fixture inventory.  By the time the application was submitted, a lot of the groundwork had already been laid. This process typically takes at least 2 years.

When do you hope to know the decision on designation? 

The Watoga State Park, Droop Mountain Battlefield and Calvin Price State Forest application was submitted in the spring of 2021.  Typically, the liaison person with the IDA goes over it, following a check list and makes suggestions for revision if needed.  Once no more revisions are necessary, the liaison person passes the application to the actual IDA committee. Our application has been passed to the IDA committee, and we are expecting to hear from the committee in July.