McDonald Observatory and National Park Service team up to expand skywatching programs

Kevin Dural

The McDonald Observatory is teaming up with park rangers at the National Park Service to show off another natural wonder to park visitors: the night sky.  

According to Marc Wetzel, the observatory’s senior outreach program coordinator, this partnership intends to promote both observation and preservation of the night sky. This will be accomplished through two workshops, during which park rangers from across the United States will learn techniques to observe and interact with the stars.

Wetzel described the McDonald Observatory and the park service as the perfect team to work together to preserve natural resources in a way that will impact many people.

“This isn’t a one-time thing, such as going to a large city and giving a speech about skywatching,” Wetzel said. “The observatory will educate the (National Park Service), which will see hundreds of thousands of people per year.”

Also included in the two workshops is information on how to best make use of outdoor light to illuminate the night sky. The partnership intends to minimize the impact that outdoor lighting has on stargazing. Limiting light pollution, as Wetzel described, is a vital tenet of preserving the natural resource that is the night sky.

“When we demonstrate efficient ways to light up outdoor areas, we ultimately are not just preserving the sky above, but also end up improving the amount of light directed downwards at things we want to illuminate,” Wetzel said. “This is the best way to preserve the night sky.”

The observatory purchased ten telescopes, which will be used to train park rangers. After the second workshop, they will be given to the park service and taken to park sites across the nation.

This partnership mirrors a similar program that the McDonald Observatory instituted across state parks in Texas. Wetzel said that national expansion may bring about challenges that were not present in the statewide program.

“First of all, it’s a little easier to homogenize training for a state system,” he said. “It’s a bit more complicated with United States being as large as it is.”

The statewide training was initially funded by contributions from McDonald Observatory benefactor Joe Orr, initially allowing the program to run for two years and hold yearly workshops for state park rangers. Similar to this program, national park rangers will utilize materials purchased for sites to train visitors and other state park rangers.

“The program in Texas … was highly successful,” Wetzel said. “We effectively trained hundreds of park rangers across the state. We hope to continue this type of success expanding nationally.”

However, Wetzel said the program is about more than just training park rangers. Central to this, he added, was also connecting park visitors with natural resources — which include wildlife, water resources and the night sky.

“Visitors will be able to understand the sky like never before,” Wetzel said. “I would definitely recommend this to everyone. It’s fantastic informal education, and a rich environment for learning.”