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Alumni profile: Adam Layman — protector of the night sky


   

A time-lapse photograph of the night sky A time-lapse photograph of the night sky during a star party at Staunton River State Park. Photo courtesy of Staunton River State Park


   

Adam Layman Adam Layman oversees activity on the observing field at a star party, which the park hosts twice a year. Photo courtesy of Staunton River State Park

Feb. 15, 2016 – In his 14-year career at Staunton River State Park in Halifax County, Virginia, Adam Layman (’07 B.S. forestry and forest resource management) has devoted himself to preserving its natural riches — 2,400 acres of forests and meadows at the intersection of the Staunton and Dan rivers. But several years ago some visiting astronomers called his attention to an endangered resource he’d overlooked: the night sky.

Layman is now leading the park’s battle against light pollution, caused by outdoor lamps that wash out starlight. “We always think about protecting our trees, water, and soil,” he said, “but the night sky is a resource we need to protect as well.”

In July, Staunton River was named an International Dark Sky Park, the 25th in the world and Virginia’s first. The nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association designates sites that comply with strict lighting standards and commit to public outreach.

Staunton River is one of only six Dark Sky Parks east of the Mississippi, where a dense web of cities and suburbs casts a nearly unbroken haze over a third of the country. Light pollution can disrupt animals’ migration, mating, and feeding patterns, and it erases the panorama of stars that countless generations have enjoyed.

“A hundred years ago, everybody could see the Milky Way on a clear night. Now very few people have that opportunity,” Layman said. “We want people to see what the sky is supposed to look like.”

Layman has spent his entire career at Staunton River. During high school, he looked for a job “doing anything outdoors” and signed on to help with park maintenance during weekends and summers.

His dedication to the environment spurred him to enroll at Virginia Tech. “I wanted a career in natural resources,” Layman explained. “Virginia Tech was the obvious choice.” He credits the Forestry Club and Xi Sigma Pi, the forestry honors society, with training him to serve as part of a team. “A lot of people can work solo,” he explained, “but when the park staff works together, it’s very similar to how we pulled off projects in both clubs.” He continued to work summers and holidays at Staunton River. In August 2007, three months after graduation, he landed a full-time position as a ranger. By November 2013, he was park manager.

He had taken the park’s starry nights for granted until astronomers from the Chapel Hill Astronomical Observational Society (CHAOS) drove up from North Carolina in 2010 in search of a patch of dark sky. Light pollution blots out their view at home, so the club scouted for better conditions on a map that plots regions of nighttime darkness. Noticing a shadow over Staunton River, CHAOS’s members headed north to investigate.

Soon, as many as 400 people were lining up at CHAOS’s telescopes during public observing sessions at the park. In 2011, CHAOS and Staunton River threw their first star party. For several days each March and October, astronomers colonize a 10-acre clearing in the park with telescopes and RVs. The most recent gathering drew 173 stargazers from New York to Alabama. “They stay up all night observing,” Layman said. “We have wonderful facilities to accommodate them, with food service for 22 hours a day. They want a sandwich and a cup of coffee at three in the morning.”

CHAOS leaders suggested that Staunton River apply to be a Dark Sky Park. The most labor-intensive hurdle was replacing the facility’s lighting with special bulbs and shielded fixtures that direct light down rather than out or up.

Two months after Staunton River earned its Dark Sky designation, Layman won the “Our Hero” award, given annually by the nonprofit Virginia Association for Parks. “Adam was selected because of the outstanding leadership and managerial skills he displayed in working with his staff to have Staunton River State Park designated as an International Dark Sky Park,” said Johnny Finch, association president.

Layman vowed to share the honor with his staff. His achievements, he said, come from his “drive to do a little better, always wanting to be better at everything. That’s how I tackled my coursework at Virginia Tech, and that’s how I strive to do things here every day.”


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