ORACLE -- Those with a taste for looking at the night stars will have several opportunities to satisfy their appetite in the coming months at two state parks in Pinal County.
Lost Dutchman State Park in the Superstition Mountains and Oracle State Park on the northern edge of the Santa Catalina Mountains both are hot spots for stargazing parties and have scheduled events that start in September and run through March. Those do not include the frequent impromptu gatherings that occur a la someone’s backyard barbecue.
Oracle State Park is next up for a scheduled star party on Sept. 21. For experienced and serious stargazers, Oracle is Arizona’s mecca for their pursuit because it was designated as an International Dark Sky Park, the first of its kind in the state, in 2014.
Although Oracle State Park started holding star parties long before being stamped a global destination, functions pre-IDSP drew a humble 50 to 60 stargazers, said Mike Weasner, chairman of the Oracle Dark Skies committee.
”It is out of the way, but it was still a big deal,” Weasner recalled.
In June 2014, attendance at the first post-IDSP star party at Oracle State Park exploded, Weasner said.
”On a hot, summer solstice day, 360 people showed up, six times the normal number,” he said.
And while the summer-night climate in Oracle and the Catalina Mountains range is about as pleasant as can be found in southern Arizona, the weather conditions were not that high of a factor, he added. Six months later and maybe 60 degrees lower, “on a cold winter night” another star party was held with 250 people making their way to Oracle.
“So it’s not a fluke. People show up and want to look at the Milky Way or just sit under the stars. And in the summer time, we’re 10 degrees cooler (than nearby urban areas), so that’s an added benefit,” said Weasner, who’s been looking at the stars since he was a young lad and his parents bought him a telescope for Christmas. Now in his early 70s, Weasner is as avid as ever about astronomy.
“Since I was six years old, astronomy always has been my love,” he said.
The International Dark Sky Association requires stargazing venues to host four astronomical events a year to carry the IDSP label, and Oracle State Park hosts six to eight every year. But there are also the spur-of-the-moment parties at Oracle State Park and the town’s eclectic nightspots.
”In the late afternoons there’s entertainment from local bands, which are very, very popular. They’re kind of random. Sometimes they don’t get a lot of publicity, but they’re still very well attended,” Weasner said.
Oracle’s star parties draw a spectrum of stargazers — those with their own expensive and fancy equipment to first-timers who show up on a whim carrying nothing more than their curiosity while looking for something new to try.
”We have all of that and everything in between,” Weasner said. “We have people from New York City who have never experienced a thrilling night sky. Just enjoy the experience. It takes the stress away from everyday living.
”And then we have people with their own telescopes. It’s an opportunity for people to learn as much as they want and enjoy the night sky.”
Lost Dutchman State Park
Authorities at Lost Dutchman State Park in Apache Junction have scheduled star parties for Nov. 2, Nov. 30, Dec. 28, Feb. 1, Feb. 29 and March 28, and city officials are hoping all in the area will cooperate to create a clear night sky.
The city of Apache Junction issued a news release in late June encouraging residents, businesses and seasonal visitors to follow outdoor lighting guidelines recommended by the International Dark Sky Association.
Those suggestions, similar to those used in Flagstaff and Tucson, pertain to newly installed outdoor lights and some replacement lights.
”One of the best parts of living in Apache Junction is being able to see the stars in our rural setting out here,” Vice Mayor Chip Wilson said through the city’s news release. “We hope all of our residents will respect each other by practicing ‘good-neighbor’ lighting and remembering the people around you when using outdoor lighting.”
Exemptions to the city’s outdoor lighting guidelines include motion-sensor security lights, flags, incandescent light bulbs lower than 150 in wattage, temporary emergency lights, vehicle lights and lights not requiring a permit. The city code has a complete list of exemptions.
”Good-neighbor” lighting considers not just the preservation of the night sky for celestial viewing but lighting that inadvertently leaves your property and affects the enjoyment of nearby neighbors. Lighting that becomes a nuisance is prohibited. The city can require shielding of a nuisance light fixture, the city’s news release also stated.
For Weasner in Oracle, private lighting as it relates to astronomy has social, ecological, political and economic ramifications. “Protect the night sky” is his mantra.
”Yes, we need light at night for safety and security, but we need it to be the right kinds of light,” Weasner said. “Wildlife hunt at night and (in bright conditions) cannot find their food. The light at night is not only killing us, it’s killing wildlife and it’s killing the environment. In the U.S., $3 billion to $7 billion a year is used on wasted energy costs. It impacts us and the world to have all this unnecessary night light. You can put light on your property anytime you want, but once it’s past the fence line, it’s a problem. So use shield lights, use a lower-wattage bulb, put in motion lights. Individuals can do a lot to reduce lighting and reduce their costs.”