Out-of-state tourism in Montana has grown almost 25 percent over the last decade but most of it is concentrated near Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. People in the eastern part of the state are trying to attract more tourists with something many Americans are losing: a dark night sky.
Light pollution prevents nearly 80 percent of North Americans from seeing the Milky Way at night, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances. This loss is leading to perhaps the next big thing — astrotourism.
“When we do anything after 9 o’clock at night, that’s usually our highest attendance," says Chris Dantic. Dantic manages four state parks in eastern Montana that host monthly night sky viewing events.
“We get out the big telescopes. People are learning about the constellations, the history, Greek mythology, the Native Americans and what it meant to them. So there are all kinds of stories you can pull out of the dark skies, and I think that’s why it’s really important not only for tourism but for different cultures,” he says.
For the last two years, his staff and volunteers have been part of an effort to get ‘dark sky’ designations for Brush Lake State Park in Sheridan County and Medicine Rocks in Fallon County. It’s through the International Dark Sky Association, a non-profit that identifies and protects some of the best places to see the night sky.
Currently, the only dark skies designation in Montana is in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Dantic says part of the application process for the state parks involves submitting monthly light readings for a year. The plan is to have the official dark sky designations in place next spring as a larger, regional astrotourism project starts to roll out.
“We had some travel writers come in about three years ago, and they said, ‘Wow, you guys [have] the darkest sky. You should really market that,’ and I thought about it," says Carla Hunsley, executive director of the Missouri River Country Tourism Region in northeast Montana.
"I’ve always known our skies are just beautiful, but when people start telling you that, it’s like, yeah, this is a good idea.”
With a $75,000 grant from the Montana Department of Commerce, Hunsley has been working with 23 counties in eastern Montana to develop a 'dark skies' route. It will include signage and maps, a marketing campaign and a calendar of events.
Hunsley says she hopes the project will get families out into nature to realize there’s a world bigger than the screen of a smartphone.