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ISSE Project: Appalachian Dark Skies Network

Team: Tim Ezzell, Political Science/ISSE and Catherine Wilt, ISSE

2016-17 Annual Report

Over the past year the project team has completed the following tasks:

Appalachian Dark Skies DatabaseTeam members have compiled a database of dark sky destinations and stakeholders across the twelve state ARC region. The database includes contact information for a wide range of stakeholders, including astronomy clubs, planetariums, observatories, and state, local, and national parks. The current list includes over 550 regional groups and destinations.

Appalachian Dark Skies Survey—After compiling the database, team members developed and delivered a survey to better understand the travel habits and economic potential of dark skies visitors. The survey also measured awareness of various dark sky destinations in the region and compiled demographic information related to the market sector. The survey was distributed among astronomy clubs across the region and was posted on a popular astronomy message board. To date, the survey has received almost 100 responses. The survey has also increased dialog with regional groups and enthusiasm for the project is high. The survey has also generated interest with other researchers and the UT team has been in contact with researchers conducting parallel projects in the UK and Australia.

Presentations—Dr. Ezzell presented preliminary findings from the study before the staff of the Appalachian Regional Commission in Washington on December 1, 2016. The staff and leadership of the agency expressed interest and support for the work and additional funding from the agency appears likely. In addition, Dr. Ezzell led a panel on dark skies development at the Appalachian Studies Conference at Virginia Tech in March 2017.

Events—Dr. Ezzell and Ms. Wilt helped host Calhoun Stargaze 2017 on May 19th-21st 2017. The event was well attended, with almost 40 paid registrants and an additional 20-25 local participants in attendance.

Findings—The database and survey, perhaps the first of their kind in the US, have greatly expanded our understanding of the region’s dark skies landscape and the amateur astronomy tourism market. Among our findings are the following:

  • The astronomy landscape is more complex than originally thought. While a small number of high profile destinations dominate the landscape, a significantly larger number of sites also exist that serve local or subregional audiences. Some of these sites have the potential to become regional or even national destinations.
  • State parks appear to form the backbone of the dark skies landscape and park managers and staff may emerge as lead proponents of any regional network.
  • Survey trends among astronomers are fairly constant and, to a degree, confirm prior demographic assumptions related to gender, race, educational attainment, and income. In general, astronomers tend to be white middle aged men with higher than average incomes and levels of educational attainment.
  • Travel and spending habits appear to be promising, as astronomers appear eager to travel and willing to spend. Interestingly, a majority of participants also expressed interest in owning or co-owning a vacation home in a dark sky community.
  • The growth of this sector may create a demand for new technologies to better serve these visitors. Global demand for specialized lighting and power and data distribution systems could become a niche industry in the region.

Other  Developments

  • Calhoun County Park has applied for a $300,000 state ARC grant to begin implementation of recommendations in the UT strategic plan. The county has also created a planning commission and will soon adopt a lighting ordinance to protect local dark skies resources.
  • Dr. Ezzell and Ms. Wilt met with officials from Pickett CCC State Park near Jamestown Tennessee to discuss UT assistance with their dark skies programming and facilities. Dr. Ezzell’s Fall Appalachian Teaching Project class will assist in exploring possible outreach activities during the Fall Semester.

External Funding Opportunities— Dr. Ezzell has submitted an NOI for an NSF AISL grant and is working with project partners to develop a submission for an internal competition related to the opportunity. The proposed pilot program would team academic scientists with citizen scientists (regional astronomy clubs) to conduct outreach activities and teacher training sessions at Calhoun County Park and Pickett CCC State Park.

2016-2017 Funded Proposal

As awareness of light pollution increases, dark sky areas are becoming more significant for both Yisitors and the research community. These areas, however, are increasingly hard to find -particularly near the urban centers of the Eastern and Central United States. The vast majority of the handful remaining accessible sites are largely found in the Appalachian Mountain region. Recognition of this fact has increased in recent years and a number of communities and facilities are beginning to market themselves as night-sky destinations. In spite of this fact, there have been almost no efforts at communication or cooperation between these sites. Sites have little awareness of one another and communities often view one another as competitors rather potential partners and allies.

As a result, communities working to preserve and promote these important resources lose valuable opportunities to share knowledge and resources. In an effort to remedy this, we propose the creation ofan Appalachian Dark Skies Network. This network would be composed of the region's dark skies destinations, night sky advocates, and other important stakeholders. These stakeholders might include as telescope and lighting manufacturers, regional colleges and universities, government agencies, and philanthropic organizations.

The potential organization's goals and activities could include the following:

  • Exchange of ideas and best practices through meetings, networking, and online communications resources.
  • Creation of shared marketing resources, such as an Appalachian dark skies website, travel guide, or travel itinerary.
  • Shared research into technical issues, including lighting technologies, land-use and zoning regulations, and low-impact development practices.
  • Create shared educational media and materials.
  • Grant development and funding partnerships.
  • Shared advocacy related to dark skies preservation issues.
  • Potential conferences for regional dark skies organizations, advocates, researchers and enthusiasts.

During the initial planning phase of the project we will undertake the following activities. First, we will survey potential partners and organization to evaluate interest in forming a regional dark skies association. At the same time, we will also contact funding agencies and organizations to solicit their support. The overall goal of these efforts would be to have a coordinated and organized effort to create a consortium in place in 2017 and a kick-off organizational meeting soon afterwards.

The organization would initially be housed at the University of Tennessee and would be supported by membership fees, grants, and donations. Within a few years the organization would become a freestanding nonprofit with a paid director and, potentially, a small staff.