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Stargazers fight to save the dazzling dark

Inside the fight for a clear view of the galaxy

By Tracy Staedter

I want to show you something — a remarkable view you cannot see until long after sunset, unless you stand in the vast middle of nowhere, without your phone or your Netflix series or your irrational fears of the wilderness just beyond the edge of your flashlight’s beam. Turn off the light.

The silhouette of the Sawtooth Range looms on the horizon, sheltering a well of Central Idaho from the sky-glow of distant civilizations. Your eyes adjust to the dark and the vista above draws them up to a black dome dazzled by many thousands of points of light. You wade into its depths, into its apparent three-dimensionality. There are galaxies behind stars behind planets. A single meteor streaks across your peripheral vision and there, a satellite, a mere speck of light, tracks a steady path along its orbit. Wonder buoys familiarity. You know this place you’ve never really seen before. You sense in it a kind of origin, and under the reassuring arm of the Milky Way, you feel recognized.

Few people live beneath — or have seen — a night this star-rich. Light pollution affects more than 80 percent of the world’s population in some way. Excessive artificial lighting bathes thousands of cities in radiance that obscures all but the brightest celestial objects. Night skies appear muddy and nearly starless.

But life needs darkness. Unnaturally bright nights can lead to depression and insomnia in humans. Brighter nights interfere with nocturnal animals’ hunting, foraging, and mating. City lights throw off the navigational systems of migrating turtles, are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of birds annually, as well as declining populations of insects fatally drawn to the gleam.

Preserving the few remaining dark places in the world is the mission of the Tucson, Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). For more than 30 years, it’s pushed against the sprawl of artificial lighting, and its efforts are beginning to pay off. Today, it’s reviewing a record number of applications from locations worldwide requesting to be certified as a dark-sky place by meeting criteria that include public education and steps to reduce light pollution.

Are these places really that dark? To find out, I spent a few evenings in July 2019 in the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, a 1,416-square-mile patch inside the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It’s one of 14 IDA-certified dark-sky reserves in the world and the only one in the United States. “It’s in the handful of places left in the continental U.S. where I would describe the quality of the night sky as being nearly pristine,” says John Barentine, IDA’s director of public policy. Later, I spoke with some of the people dedicated to studying and preserving dark skies and potentially capitalizing on them to boost rural economies.

Galaxy made of milk

In darkness, there is light. I wrote these words in my notes our first night in Idaho, on the southern edge of the reserve. We stayed in a teepee, my partner Andy and I, on a working vegetable farm that also kept chickens, goats, and a few Arabian horses. It was well after 10 p.m. before the sun completely set and pulled twilight down with it. There was no moon. No light, natural or unnatural, marred the view. In the northwest, we found the ladle of the Big Dipper and near it, the distinct “W” that marks Cassiopeia. To the south, Jupiter’s bright orb hung over the horizon beside the star Antares — so red, it could have been mistaken for Mars.

The Milky Way, the center of our home galaxy, appeared in Idaho as a star-painted band of cosmic dust, arcing from the southern horizon to the northeast.

But the most impressive sight by far was the Milky Way, the center of our home galaxy. Long ago named by the Greeks as galaxias kyklos, or “milky circle,” it appeared in Idaho as a star-painted band of cosmic dust, arcing from the southern horizon to the northeast. To see it is to see the only real-time view of our galaxy. No satellites have ever traveled far enough into space to leave our galaxy, look back, and snap a photograph of the Milky Way. But if such a photograph existed, it would show a disc-shaped feature rotating in space with five spiral arms and an energetic black hole at the core. Our sun and the rest of our solar system sit between two of those arms on a feature called the Orion Spur. When we look up into the night sky, we are seeing those arms edge-on. The view is analogous to seeing a coastal city from a ship out at sea, as opposed to looking down on it from an airplane.  

One hallmark of a dark sky is the ability to behold the Milky Way. Because of light pollution, though, more than a third of the people on Earth cannot see it from where they live, nor can 60 percent of Europeans or nearly 80 percent of North Americans. In 2016, Fabio Falchi of the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy and his colleagues published light-pollution maps of the world, which showed where night-sky luminance was worst and, conversely, where skies were the darkest. (They published updated maps in 2019.) Comparing nighttime satellite images with light measurements taken from the ground, they defined a pristine dark sky as one where the very top of the night sky, its zenith, contained no more than 1 percent of light from artificial sources. “Almost all of central Idaho meets that definition,” says Barentine.

These kinds of studies help ground IDA’s mission in science. But until recently, no academic center or institution in the United States focused on studying dark skies, says Barentine. That changed when IDA helped the University of Utah to establish the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies in 2016. In August 2019, the consortium launched a new undergraduate minor in dark sky studies and published the first issue of the Journal of Dark Sky Studies, which contains research, art, and conservation stories from the dark sky movement. 

“One part of the journal is peer-reviewed,” says Daniel Mendoza, co-director of the consortium and the journal’s editor-in-chief. “The second part explores creative expression.” That could appeal to a range of people, he says, from those who know little about dark skies to those who research and advocate for them.

Making of a reserve

An osprey dipped and rose again over Valley Creek, one of a handful of languid tributaries that feed the Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho. Here, on the north end of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, it’s common to see osprey, eagles, coyotes, pronghorn, and mule deer. We saw them all. Wildlife viewing and opportunities to hike, drift-boat fish, camp, horseback ride, and soak in nearby natural hot springs draw upwards of 250,000 tourists a year to this tiny town of only 63 people.

They’re what drew Steve Botti, who moved to Stanley from Boise with his wife Vicki in 2007, after he retired from his job as a national fire program manager for the National Park Service. The fact that snowstorms and the occasional avalanche often close the only two roads into and out of Stanley each winter didn’t bother them. They like to cross-country ski.

One of the first things Botti noticed after he settled into his house was the night sky. Unlike Boise’s flat, almost starless nights, evenings over Stanley radiated celestial brilliance. “Having a super-dark sky with all of the stars and the Milky Way was a real amenity to living up here,” says Botti. “It was something worth protecting.”

In early 2016, after rising through the ranks of the town council to become its president, Botti (who is now mayor), called up Barentine at the International Dark Sky Association to see what it would take to turn the area into a dark sky reserve. Botti soon discovered that the nearest towns — Stanley, Ketchum, Hailey, and Sun Valley to the south — had already passed ordinances to reduce exterior light pollution. Blaine County, within which Ketchum and Sun Valley are located, also had adopted a dark sky ordinance. He also found that one government agency, the U.S. Forest Service, managed most of the surrounding area, including three wilderness areas, which according to federal law cannot be modified by mining or logging. That would make it easier to keep the place dark.

Botti and fellow dark-sky advocates held information sessions to talk about ways to tweak lighting that would benefit locals without marring starlit nights. For instance, using light shields on exterior bulbs helped direct beams onto the ground instead of into the sky. Timers and sensors turned lights on only when needed. LEDs created enough light without over-illuminating. To check how residents felt about protecting dark skies in the Sawtooth Valley, the U.S. Forest Service conducted a survey in spring 2017. Botti says more than 90 percent of the people that responded said they supported a reserve. By fall 2017, the dark-sky coalition had submitted its application. That December, IDA announced the formation of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve.

Astro-tourism for rural revenue

On our last night in the dark sky reserve, Andy and I were disappointed to see the skies cloud up. Thankfully, it’s not the only dark sky place in the United States, or the world. IDA has designated more than 100 dark sky places as reserves, sanctuaries, or parks in countries including Germany, Japan, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea. Many countries hope to capitalize on astro-tourism, a niche industry built around astronomy enthusiasts willing to travel to see a celestial spectacle. Obtaining a dark-sky designation not only ensures best practices for managing darkness, but also gives those in charge a way to promote it.

According to Barentine, the number of dark places worldwide that have applied to be IDA-certified was 10 times higher at the end of 2018 than eight years earlier. In the past five years, IDA has averaged about 16 new designations per year. “We’re at 27 designations for 2019 — an all-time record — and expect a few more before year’s end,” he says.

Tourists are explicitly asking for astronomy-related trips, reports the U.K.-based luxury travel agency Scott Dunn. John Spence, the company’s president, says bookings for celestial experiences went up 120 percent in 2019 compared to the year before. And the travel industry is working to accommodate them. Lonely Planet listed “dark skies” as a travel trend for 2019, with details on observatories, tours, cruises, and even stargazing hotels that offer rooms with sky-view domes, so that guests can observe the night sky from their beds.

Researchers have studied astro-tourism’s potential in countries including Chile, Tanzania, South Africa, and the Philippines. Research from Missouri State University, published in the journal Tourism Review, found that dark-sky tourists to the Colorado Plateau, which encompasses parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, will potentially spend more than $5 billion over the next 10 years, creating 10,000 additional jobs annually. “It’s a powerful demonstration of the economic development potential for dark skies,” says Barentine, especially in declining forestry and mining towns.

Whether Idaho or other dark locales would see even a fraction of that kind of income is unclear. But Botti and Barentine both say astro-tourism could attract visitors in the wintertime, when nights are the longest, or fill in gaps in off-peak seasons, when tourists have fewer reasons to come.

Susan Adams, a recreation manager for Elliotsville Plantation, a foundation in northern Maine, agrees. The foundation was started by Roxanne Quimby, a co-founder of Burt’s Bees, whose gift of 87,564 acres of land became the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in 2016. “We have some of the darkest skies east of the Mississippi,” says Adams. Each year, the foundation has hosted a “star party” that has drawn about 75 people to a remote area of the park. The National Park Service recently submitted an application to IDA to obtain Dark Sky Sanctuary status for the monument.

Adams says a planned visitor contact station for the monument will accommodate night sky observations. She envisions star parties year-round, paired with educational programs that underscore the importance of dark skies. As the program grows, she thinks it could encourage surrounding communities to adopt dark-sky ordinances and increase the size of the protected area. “Becoming a dark-sky reserve would be the next great step,” she says.

Spending a few nights under an unspoiled night sky had us longing for more. IDA is working out plans to encourage astro-tourists like us to travel to more than one dark place. Barentine said they’re considering an idea modeled on the U.S. national parks passport, in which visitors would get a stamp for each place they visited. They’re also looking into promoting “tourism trails” that would link a number of spots in the same area. Keeping people in the dark may be the key to helping them more fully see and appreciate its beauty.

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Tracy Staedter is a writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Top image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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