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New study explores visitor experiences in Alberta dark sky preserves

How does spending a night gazing up at the unspoiled sky impact astrotourists? Is it enough to change how they think about light pollution, or does the sense of wonder fade like the milky way under city lights?
Green aurora borealis in the night sky.

The health and environmental benefits of protecting a region from light pollution are already well established, and one only has to look at the stream of visitors to the Jasper Dark Sky Festival or the Alberta's newest dark sky preserve in Lakeland Provincial Park to get a sense of how "astrotourism" can boost rural economies.

But how does spending a night gazing up at the unspoiled sky impact these astrotourists? Is it enough to change how they think about light pollution, or does the sense of wonder fade like the milky way under city lights?

Such aspects of visitor experiences are the topic of new research from Dr. Glen Hvenegaard, professor of environmental science at the University of Alberta Augustana Campus.

"The economic impacts are real, and they're substantial. They benefit local communities, especially in rural dark sky types of areas that are needing rural economic activity," said Hvenegaard.

"We chose to go look at other things, because some of this had been done already," he said. "One angle of our project was focused on the visitor outcome."

To better understand the visitor experience, Hvenegaard and other researchers surveyed participants at the Jasper Dark Sky Festival: Did they enjoy it? Did they learn something? Did they have any different attitudes about dark skies? And do they do any behaviours that support dark skies?

"The answers to those four questions were yes, yes, yes, and mediocre," Hvenegaard said.

When asked if they would change their behaviours about dark skies after attending the festival, only 42 per cent said yes.

"They're motivated by the desire to learn something new. And they do indeed learn new things about dark skies. They even have super strong attitudes towards the desire to protect dark skies. But behaviour change requires extra commitment," he said.

Like the desire to be healthy, good attitude is a starting point, but there is a time investment and sometimes an actual cost involved to take the next step. For dark sky protection, this could mean turning off your outdoor lights, installing censors to limit when they're on, or changing the type of lights you use.

Those Dark Sky Festival visitors who did say they were going to change their behaviour also mentioned experiencing the night sky more, pushing for policies to reduce light pollution, travelling to dark sky preserves, and encouraging others to do the same.

To help get more people to take these steps, Hvenegaard said parks and guides could include more information to encourage these behaviour changes in their programming.

Educational programming at the Lakeland Park Dark Sky Preserve continues to evolve as awareness and interest in the site east of Lac La Biche grows, said Pam Davidson, press secretary for Alberta Forestry and Parks.

"While we have not received any specific feedback from campers or visitors about the Dark Sky Preserve, Alberta Parks Lakeland District staff actively engage visitors and the local community to share information about star gazing and help others make their own discoveries," said Davidson.

"Interactions with the community at local events around Lakeland Provincial Park have also provided opportunities to increase awareness of the local Dark Sky Preserve.  

"Starting this year, all campground stores in the Alberta Parks Lakeland district will have discovery packs for visitors to borrow that include educational guides, resources and binoculars for astronomical viewing. The Stuart MacPherson Library in Lac La Biche also lends telescopes to members so they can enjoy the beauty of the sky."

About the Author: Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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