The SkyStar Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park Should Close to Protect Our Wildlife

By Katherine Howard

The SkyStar Observation Wheel brightly lit in Golden Gate Park on a Decemeber night.
Photo credit: Cropped from "Skystar 09 line" by Scott Ashkenaz (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Last year, without adequate environmental review, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department installed a brightly lit Ferris wheel in the middle of Golden Gate Park. Because of the non-historic character of the wheel, the Historic Preservation Commission limited the wheel's permit to one year. Now the Recreation and Parks Department is asking that this permit be extended for four more years.

Here’s why this is a problem for the environment:

The SkyStar Observation Wheel has bands of exterior booth lights and flashing, rotating designs on the sides — all extremely bright LEDs — that stay lit until 10:00 PM every night. The wheel is brighter than any other lighted object in the western part of San Francisco, allowing it to be seen from more than a mile away.

Our city parks are a vital refuge for wild animals struggling to deal with the loss of habitat and open space. Wildlife needs darkness. Light pollution can have a negative impact on birds — both resident and migrating — as well as bats, insects, amphibians, and other animals. Artificial light can alter an animal’s circadian rhythm, disrupting breeding, foraging, and sheltering cycles. Furthermore, it can draw and disorient some species while repelling others — in both cases, to deadly effect.

Golden Gate Park is one of the few places in San Francisco where wildlife can find refuge at night. And yet, the Recreation and Parks Department has chosen to light the center of one of San Francisco’s major habitat areas with extremely bright LEDs, which remain lit every night, even while the wheel remains closed to the public due to COVID restrictions.

Since its inception, Golden Gate Park has provided the opportunity for families and children from all income levels to enjoy nature close to home; this is especially important for those who do not have easy access to distant natural areas. If our own local nature is continuously infringed upon by artificial attractions — particularly those which harm wildlife — then that deprives those communities of a direct experience with nature.

The wheel was installed by the Recreation and Parks Department as an attraction that would bring people into Golden Gate Park during its 150th Anniversary Celebration. However, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of San Francisco have flocked to Golden Gate Park to enjoy it for its primary historic use: as a parkland. A better celebration of the Park would be providing nature tours, educational events, and opportunities for children to learn about the importance of protecting nature in the fight against climate change.

Here is the status of the wheel as of this writing:

  1. Four members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors have asked to meet with the Rec and Park Department to discuss the public’s concerns.
  2. The Sierra Club has filed a CEQA appeal of the Environmental Determination regarding the four-year extension.
  3. There is new controversy surrounding the Ferris wheel. As we are going to press, members of the Board of Supervisors have requested an investigation into the park’s 150th Anniversary celebration agreement between the nonprofit San Francisco Parks Alliance and the Rec and Park Department. The Park Alliance gets $1 for every $18 Ferris wheel ticket sold.

What you can do

Speak up for wildlife by: