Two Colorado towns preserve starry nights

Two southern Colorado towns, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, have applied to become the state’s first designated International Dark Sky Community. If approved they’ll join only eight other communities and 29 parks worldwide to achieve this designation.

“When the Milky is up it is phenomenal because the sky is brilliant. Anyone who has never seen the Milky way will be overwhelmed…in awe by how bright it is, how dramatic it is is going across the sky,” says Jim Bradburn

He says if you look up on a clear night in Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley, you’ll see stars from horizon to horizon.

Bradburn is the president of Wet Mountain Valley Dark Skies, a group that’s working to make sure that night sky stays dramatic.

Westcliffe and Silver Cliff are the Wet Mountain Valley’s main towns, located about an hour west of Pueblo. The valley is surrounded by mountains and known for it’s ranches. Bradburn says it makes sense to protect the night sky there because it will draw tourists and others.

“We have a beautiful, beautiful valley that is gorgeous and has been photographed. And everybody loves the Sangre de Cristos and the Wet Mountains, but we have a phenomenal night. So as much as we have a beautiful landscape, we have this beautiful, phenomenal, awe inspiring nightscape,” says Bradburn.

Keeping the view of the stars means keeping the night sky dark. Too much light in the sky, known as light pollution, obscures the stars. As cities and towns grow, light pollution usually grows with them.

John Barentine is the program manager for the International Dark Sky Association, which works to keep the night dark by reducing the amount of light shining up into the sky.

He says, “Light pollution is any sort of form of unwanted light or not doing a task.”

According to Barentine fixtures that cast light upwards are a waste of energy and can cause host of problems with wildlife, insects, plants and even human health.

To combat light pollution, Barentine says we need to put the light in places where and when we need it. This could be as simple as putting a shield on an outdoor light to keep the light focused downward. Or it may involve deciding if the light is even necessary.

“It’s deliberately difficult to get these designations,” says Barentine, “the communities must enact lighting ordinances that place meaningful restrictions on what you can and can’t do with light.”

He says the ordinances don’t have to be complicated and the IDA developed model codes with the help of a professional lighting engineers organization. Existing lighting is usually grandfathered in.

A change of use might trigger compliance replacing old fixture with a new one. So there are ways to eventually bring bad fixtures into compliance. Triggers would be new construction or replacing old fixtures when they wear out.

But, Barentine says, It’s especially hard to get it done in a place where there is distrust of government.

“It’s touchy because it affects private property rights and western communities have a lot of people concerned with these rights,” he says.

He notes that Wet Mountain Valley Dark Skies has a 15 year history of working to protect the night sky and the community support is excellent.

“It’s not just platitudes and proclamations,” he says, “it’s people putting their time and money into it.”

Barentine points out that while Westcliffe has a dark sky with lots of stars, “there’s no requirement that says you have to start out with a dark sky. “

He says its about adopting good lighting standards and one of the communities that’s already achieved a IDA designation is a Chicago suburb that is as bright as any urban location.

The IDA is currently reviewing an application from the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff to become a designated Dark Sky community. The board is expected to make a decision soon.

See a video of Earth’s lights and listen to  Two Colorado towns look to preserve view of starry nights reported and produced by Shanna Lewis for Colorado Matters on Colorado Public Radio.

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