Voices from the Pennsylvania Wilds: Finding a ‘Stargazers Paradise’ in the Pennsylvania Wilds

I grew up in Dents Run, Elk County, with a father who was, and still is, passionately involved in helping to maintain the beautiful natural resources of our region. My father worked for the Bureau of Forestry and his life-long knowledge of Pennsylvania’s elk herd involved him in some of the earliest research then being conducted by Penn State University. To this day, he is still recognized as one of the leading experts on elk in the state.

When I was younger, I tagged along while my father guided researchers and public officials through what is now the Pennsylvania Wilds Elk Scenic Area. In later years, when I conducted my own elk tours as a ranger at Parker Dam State Park, my father would go before me and scout out the elk, helping to ensure that my tours would be a success. Today, I continue to follow in my father’s footsteps through my own work with the Bureau of State Parks and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

As manager of a network of eight state parks, including Cherry Springs State Park, I’ve been part of the planning process for the Pennsylvania Wilds initiative from its inception. This valuable 12-county effort, driven by local and state partners, is spurring strategic investment in the region’s natural resources, public lands, businesses and communities. My father and I agree – these are exciting times for our region. We have an incredible opportunity to take the beautiful resources that we have and improve upon them, not only for our own use, but for our sons and daughters, too.

One of the first projects of the Pennsylvania Wilds initiative was improvement to the facilities at Cherry Springs State Park. While it may have been named for its abundance of black cherry trees, the park is better known, through recent articles in the Associated Press, on CNN.com, in the Washington Post and all across the nation, as home to the darkest skies east of the Mississippi, a true “star-gazers paradise.”

Sometimes you don’t know what’s right under your nose. I think those of us in the field have always known Cherry Springs State Park was a special place, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that we started noticing amateur astronomers gathering in a nearby field and realized it was more than that. When we asked them why they’d gather in our park, we found that it wasn’t only what was in the park that attracted them, but also, what was above it.

In fact, the skies above Cherry Springs State Park show up in satellite images as a gaping black hole, with almost no light pollution and an amazing range of astronomical sights. The word began to spread from one astronomer to another that they could observe a pristine night sky without traveling to the western United States. A “friends” group, the Cherry Springs Dark Sky Fund, was formed with the help of the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation and with that came donations and advice from astronomers on how to best make improvements to enhance the stargazing experience at the park. The park has partnered with other groups such as the Galeton Rotary, sponsors of the annual Woodsman’s Show, to bury the overhead electric lines in the park, resulting in an unobstructed view of the night sky. The Potter County Education Council partnership also formed a partnership with the park to provide off-site, community-based astronomy programs and teacher workshops.

Before long, the amateur astronomer community was abuzz with interest in Cherry Springs, and the National Public Observatory chose it as the flagship park for its Stars-n-Parks Program. In1999, the Central Pennsylvania Observers sponsored the first “Star Party.” And in April 2000, DCNR took steps to protect its dark skies as a natural resource and designated Cherry Springs State Park as Pennsylvania’s first official Dark Sky Park.
Around that time, we realized that the resources at Cherry Springs State Park could be valuable tools for sustainable tourism in our region. We knew it was only a matter of time before the word spread about our astronomy field outside of the amateur astronomy world. In the summer of 2003, USA Today listed Cherry Springs as one of the top ten star-gazing locations in the U.S. The word was out.

With the help of a national consulting firm, we were able to conduct an in-depth study that looked at the infrastructure improvements necessary to manage the rapidly increasing number of visitors to the park. As a result of that study, recent advancements have included the addition of three all-weather observation domes and a skyshed with a roll-back observation roof, new interpretative kiosks, and access roads and electric service for the observation field. In the next few months, we will be installing an additional dome, modern restrooms, and a night sky amphitheater. Future plans include the construction of a proposed Night Sky Visitor Center complete with a planetarium. We’re also currently working on applying for official dark sky park certification with the International Dark Sky Association.

In the meantime, we’ve been able to share the dark sky experience with new visitors from all over the U.S. and Canada, thanks to a continued interest from the media and visiting public. Our interaction with visitors has expanded to include new interpretative programs about the night skies and light pollution, hosting two annual “star parties,” and continuing our participation in the national Stars-n-Parks program, all in an effort to educate the public about the incredible resource we have here so that we can continue to conserve it for generations to come.

Harry “Chip” Harrison grew up and still works and lives in the Pennsylvania Wilds. He and his wife have been residents and active members in the Galeton community since 1994.

For more information about the Pennsylvania Wilds initiative, visit the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Web site and click on “PA Wilds.” To learn more about or visit the parks and attractions in the Pennsylvania Wilds, go to VisitPA.com or call your local visitors bureau.

GantDaily Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of columns, “Voices from the Pennsylvania Wilds.”

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