With a push to conserve natural resources, one that is often overlooked or taken for granted is a resource that can be enjoyed after every sunset. For Utah State University Environment and Society doctoral student Iree Wheeler, it was something she worked to protect. The resource: the night sky. The place: Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (WGIPP), a contiguous national park across the United States-Canadian border, consisting of Glacier National Park in Montana and Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta.
“Night skies are this amazing resource that often is not protected in the same way as more tangible resources are,” Wheeler said. “But they are so important for wildlife and also for human wellbeing. To be able to see the Milky Way and to see dark night skies, for people that haven’t experienced it, they don’t understand just how important that is.”
Wheeler was instrumental in earning the WGIPP an International Dark Sky Park designation by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the first ever Dark Sky designation for a park that spans the border of two countries. For her work on earning the park its designation, Wheeler was awarded the 2020 IDA Dark Sky Defender award, a title given to individuals and organizations in recognition of their exceptional efforts to promote quality outdoor lighting to reduce light pollution and its environmental impacts.
Having worked at Glacier National Park in Montana the previous summer, Wheeler overheard the park wanting to pursue the designation of a Dark Sky Place. Then working in the park’s planning and compliance office, she was approached and hired as an intern to write the application for the park to receive the designation, something she jumped at the opportunity to do.
“When I saw that this project was going to happen, I immediately wanted to get involved,” Wheeler said. “As anyone who has spent time at Glacier on a clear night knows, the skies are quite stunning. Everyone there agreed that there were really great night sky resources in that area. The goal is to make sure the public understands what those resources are and to protect them for future generations.”
It was Wheeler’s job to write the application, explaining why the Waterton-Glacier park qualified as a dark sky place, and how the park was going to commit to protect that resource into the future. Wheeler traveled throughout the park, critiquing every light fixture in the park and replacing non-IDA compliant fixtures, making sure over lighting did not occur in the park. She also worked with people on the Canadian side of the border to do the same thing.
“Over lighting is very common in many places,” she commented. “Glacier and Waterton came up with plans on how they were going to critically assess every light fixture they had in the park and decide where they needed light fixtures, how bright they needed to be and how long they needed to be on every night.”
The greatest challenge of the project was working across national borders. With two separate government agencies working together, Wheeler worked through the challenges of sharing documents between nations and also staying in compliance with each country’s historic preservation and natural resource preservation laws.
“The way that we were able to get funding for the two sides was different, and the hoops that we had to jump through in each country were a little different,” she said. “It took a lot of communication and understanding what each park was able to do within their own respective country.”
Besides earning the title of “Dark Sky Defender,” which Wheeler joked made her sound like she was part of the space force, the thing that makes her most proud of the project was the fact that she was preserving the night sky for people to enjoy.
“I was able to participate in something that is helping people get out and see the night skies,” she said. “That always makes me the most proud, just seeing people out there experiencing the dark skies and realizing they can see the Milky Way.”
Wheeler now enters her doctoral program at USU, beginning in January in the S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources. She is excited to begin her work with Zach Miller and Wayne Freimund in the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism.
“I hope to spend the next four years working out of Utah State, where every direction I look, there is very interesting and innovative research coming out from different professors and graduate students,” Wheeler said. “I’m hoping to get to spend the next four years working with and learning from everyone in that department. I’m very excited being a part of the work that is happening at Utah State University.”
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