Trade War Impacts Glacier’s Dark Sky Initiative

Price of night sky-friendly light fixtures and bulbs increases amid new tariffs on products imported from China

By Tristan Scott
A visitor takes in views of the Aurora Borealis over Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park on May 28, 2017. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

The experience of gazing up at Glacier National Park’s starlit night sky has mesmerized millions of visitors, many of them more accustomed to the bright lights of bustling cityscapes than the star-speckled kaleidoscope of absolute darkness.

It’s a view that transports people away from the workaday hustle and garish trappings of modern life and transports them to a galaxy far, far away, a perspective so unique that park officials have identified it as a key natural resource, just like the park’s namesake glaciers and iconic goats, as well as other species for whom an infusion of unnatural light disrupts circadian rhythms.

To maintain the clarity of its dark skies, Glacier National Park along with nearby Waterton Lake National Park have worked in concert to achieve something unprecedented — in 2017, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park was named the first the first transboundary International Dark Sky Park.

The designation from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) follows a decade of work between the two parks and partners like the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which has financially supported Glacier’s night sky education program.

In recent months, however, Glacier’s steps to meet compliance guidelines required by the IDA to maintain its designation have encountered stumbling blocks as President Donald Trump escalates his trade war with China. The ensuing tariff increases on $200 billion worth of imports have caused prices of almost every kind of lighting fixture to increase, including night-sky friendly models that park officials identified as best suited to Glacier’s needs.

“It has been more of a challenge, that’s for sure, and it’s taken longer than we anticipated, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and we hope to get them installed by late summer or early fall,” said Mark Biel, Glacier’s natural resource program manager, who has helped spearhead the effort to get the international peace park designated as a dark sky preserve.

The costs of replacing dozens of light bulbs and fixtures is borne by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, the park’s nonprofit fundraising arm that has raised more than $150,000 to support the burgeoning dark sky program.

The money is being put toward the installation of a new observation dome at the St. Mary Visitor Center, an expansion of the daily astronomy education programs throughout the park and the installation of dark sky-friendly lighting in the park.

However, the lights must not only meet dark sky-approved procedures and protocols established by the IDA, but also criteria approved by Glacier’s cultural staff, the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Register of Historic Places, which lists numerous historic structures inside and around the park’s borders.

With that in mind, Biel and his team set to work identifying approved fixtures to replace roughly 30 light fixtures at park headquarters and another dozen at Lake McDonald Lodge and found a manufacturer, Texas-based Green Star Lights, that was beginning production of a new model that fit within the Conservancy’s budget. However, shifting economic sands and global tariffs imposed by the Trump administration made it cost prohibitive for Green Star to manufacture the lights, particularly due to the increased cost of the light engines and other electronic components.

“We had several options and we worked with the cultural staff here and the State Historic Preservation Office, and they didn’t like any of the initial options, so we started working with [Green Star] and finally settled on something that worked,” Biel said. “But then we got an email saying that the cost associated with some components was way too high so they couldn’t manufacture it.”

But Green Star knew another company that manufactured another brand similar to the fixtures, and put Biel in touch with Miguel Salinas at Lumica Lighting in San Antonio, Texas.

“We were able to propose an alternate solution that still met the same requirements,” Salinas said. “Unfortunately, with all these tariffs being implemented, the consumer and purchasers at different levels including you and I are paying for the increased costs of various products, from light fixtures to electronics. We have had to raise price increments from 5 percent to 15 percent. Some assemble these materials in the U.S., others in China, but the components are of Chinese origin. So there’s a mix of situations that must be taken into account, and the result is various price increases.”

Biel and his team are still moving forward by ordering the light fixtures through Lumica, but what the company originally quoted as costing $490 per unit — up from Green Star’s product that cost $350 per unit — now costs 10-15 percent more, or between $539 and $563.50 per unit.

It’s a wrinkle in some of the initial steps to keep Glacier’s sky dark, Biel said, but park officials are committed to meeting the IDA designations one way or another. Biel’s been heading up the initiative and has successfully completed a lighting audit, an assessment that took three years to complete, and the lighting installation project is integral to Glacier and Waterton national parks’ joint dark sky status.

“We hope we won’t run into any more issues, because we’re committed to this project, but there have been some challenges,” Biel said.