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Dark-sky designations bring the promise of starry nights — and tourist dollars — to rural Colorado

A dark-sky designation offers economic benefits, but it also advances the notion of light pollution as an environmental issue

The Milky Way over an old barn in Westcliffe, a dark-sky designated town in rural Colorado. (Mike Pach, 3 Peaks Photography)
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ORCHARD — The first weekend Jackson Lake State Park received its certification from the International Dark-Sky Association, ranger Amy Brandenburg saw more than the Milky Way on her night patrols.

Campers gathered like the moths and midges that used to swarm around the buildings at night before the park went dark. The grounds were full of them, which was strange, given that it was late September, a time that brought a discouraging chill to the summer fun that burnished Jackson Lake’s reputation as a place for boating and partying with your bros. 

These campers were much different, too: They all seemed to have telescopes, and they whispered to each other, as though they were studying together in a library. They weren’t there for a beer bash. They were there to look at the stars. 

Almost overnight, Jackson Lake had a new reason for visitors

That’s why the park, which closes at dusk in the winter, opened up on a Sunday night earlier this month to give residents a chance to watch the Geminid meteors. The temperature dipped into the single digits, with a thick blanket of snow smothering campsites, and yet, stargazers whooped and hollered louder than Morgan County’s yelping coyotes every time a burning light tore across the sky. 

Anglers wait for a bite on the shores of a busy Jackson Lake State Park on May 17, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Liz Law-Evans, 59, of Broomfield, would have never considered camping at Jackson in the winter — “I’m allergic to being cold,” she said — but she found the state park’s tweet about seeing the meteors hard to resist and proposed a trip with her husband, John Evans, 62, and their daughter, Lily, 19. 

“We were just getting cabin fever with the whole COVID thing,” Law-Evans said. “It was really fun to hear all the cheers. We saw many big ones.”

Jackson Lake is riding the tail of a newfound fascination with the night sky, as nine Colorado places — three communities and six parks — are now officially listed by the International Dark-Sky Association, and there are others who covet the designation for the tourism some think it will bring at otherwise slow times of the year. 

The certification process isn’t too expensive — Jackson Lake spent more than $20,000 in grant money, but could have done it for thousands less — but it can take a year or two. 

Nevertheless, that hasn’t discouraged places from applying: Just four years ago, there were 54 certified around the world in the organization’s 35-plus years of existence. Now there are 164, said Adam Dalton, who is the program manager and the only one in the small and overwhelmed organization who looks over the applications. There are hundreds more applications in the works, he said. 

Dalton said there are environmental reasons for this: Light pollution is a common phrase now, and more people acknowledge the damage it does to humans and wildlife. 

Comet NEOWISE as seen from Westcliffe, one of three dark-sky communities in Colorado. (Mike Pach, 3 Peaks Photography)

But it’s also the fun, simple fact that as more people become aware of places where people can see the Milky Way, many for the first time, they spread the word and get their communities involved. Many dark sky places, in fact, occur as the result of volunteers. Phillip Virden, an amateur astronomer and resident of Lake City for close to 50 years, just got a dark-sky park approved for his tiny town nestled near a half-dozen fourteeners in the San Juan range. 

“It’s a snowball effect, and during COVID it’s been incredible to see,” Dalton said. “We’ve seen an outdoors movement in the last decade, but especially during COVID, people want safe, remote areas to have that kind of experience.” 

Wish for tourists upon the stars

Virden spent last Saturday morning digging his driveway out from another snowfall. The owner of the town’s only movie theater, he gushes with positivity over Lake City’s fortunes, even in the thick of a long, snowy winter in the mountains and COVID working to keep people away. 

The dark-sky association in September approved his application for an undeveloped park south of Lake City, something he’s worked on for more than a year. The 58-acre Slumgullion Discovery Center Dark Sky Park is undeveloped but has the potential to be a stop on the Colorado Stargazing: Experience the Night tour that winds through some of the darkest skies in the state. The astro-tourism promotion effort also involves talking to the city and county about developing regulations to meet the dark-sky standards, using the Lake City Community School’s portable planetarium for future stargazing events and a $15,000 matching grant from the Boettcher Foundation. Community residents, he said, are “upbeat and thumbs up” about the windfall that should come. 

Creede, essentially a sister town to Lake City, is now in the early stages of its own application.

“No other question has sparked so much interest,” Virden said. “There’s something about this endeavor that brings people from all sides of everything, and if we ever needed that in our culture, it is right now. The much better part of all this is that those starry nights do something for all of us.”

For more information: 

In Colorado we have nine officially recognized dark-sky places; six parks and three communities, listed here:  https://idacolorado.xyz/our-work/dark-sky-places.

Although Lake City hopes to capture the designation to draw tourists who don’t want to climb the fourteeners or go off-roading, it’s hard to know how many visitors would go specifically to see the stars. Ridgway earned its designation in July, becoming the third community in Colorado after Norwood and Westcliffe/Silver Cliff

Ridgway for years made efforts to preserve its night sky even before turning in an application, and residents obviously are proud of its designation, as the town issued a press release with Mayor John Clark calling the designation “an incredible accomplishment.” 

But Tim Patterson, president of the Ridgway Area of Chamber of Commerce, said the organization chose to remain neutral on the application, because of the costs of compliance and the dark skies hampering the visibility of business signs as well as those designated for public safety. 

Patterson is supportive of the designation, but he also said any perceived value is “to be determined.” 

“I personally believe it may become a great asset,” Patterson said. “Marketing efforts have been minimal at this point…we just don’t have any empirical data yet.”

Still, Jackson Lake remains excited to be listed among prestigious locations in Colorado, such as Dinosaur National Monument, the Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, as a dark-sky place, and park workers are certain they’ve attracted many more visitors this time of year than they would have otherwise. Jackson even purchased a large telescope for visitors to use. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in southern Colorado. (Peng Yang, Unsplash)

“That’s probably been one of the neatest things about this,” said Brandenburg, who planned to feature Saturn’s convergence with Jupiter this week as another draw to the state park. “I didn’t even know people owned telescopes, but we see them all the time in our campgrounds now. We have a winter group now. That was evident that freezing Sunday night. We saw more than two dozen campers and even more cars.”

At the speed of light

Dalton has a saying that light pollution is by far the easiest pollution to fix — it goes away “at the speed of light.” 

But it’s still an endeavor, as Virden said, to get certified.

Brandenburg said Jackson Lake’s application was 37 pages and involved removing street lights as well as changing the lighting fixtures around buildings to direct them downward and shield them from casting wayward light out into the sky. Other changes included installing light sensors in bathrooms, so they turn off when campers aren’t using them, and making the light softer. Two grants from the Colorado Parks Foundation and Great Outdoors Colorado contributed nearly $25,000, and the Morgan County Rural Electric Association donated its time to remove light poles.

Tyler Sewald, the park manager, got an idea to transform Jackson Lake a couple years ago, when he traveled to Berlin to run a marathon and was surprised to find it was a dark-sky place. If a big city could do that, surely his state park, surrounded by farms and the tiny town of Orchard, could manage it. Even so, it wasn’t easy. 

“We weren’t that dark of a park,” Sewald said. “But we worked on the park first, which was within our control. We could have done it for far less money, but the grants helped us make the park a lot more usable. And then you really do need buy-in from community members as well.”

The dark-sky guidelines have gotten stricter in the last few years as technology improves, Dalton said. Applications shouldn’t take longer than five years, even if they face some opposition.

“The understanding of light pollution is dramatically growing at this point, and therefore guidelines are updated every three years,” Dalton said, although applications are grandfathered in if they got in before the most recent changes. “But we don’t want to make it impossible for someone to achieve either.”

Those guidelines are strict, Dalton said, because of what’s at stake: Most young people in the U.S. don’t see the Milky Way any longer, and even with the surge in awareness, that means time to save the skies is limited. 

“Younger people don’t realize what they are missing,” Dalton said, “and it’s hard to care about what you’ve never known. There’s no sexy river-on-fire moment for this. The skies are just fading out indefinitely.”

Photography students capture the Milky Way during a night sky workshop in Westcliffe. (Mike Pach, 3 Peaks Photography)

Harsh and harmful 

Light pollution, just like any pollution, harms humans and wildlife, and in just the last few years, more people have begun to understand those adverse effects. The bulk of the work the dark-sky association does informs the public about the health hazards of lighting the night. It’s not, in other words, just an effort to help people see pretty stars.

“It’s becoming widely accepted as an environmental issue,” Dalton said.

The association’s website, for instance, quotes a researcher focused on nocturnal animals who calls artificial light “the most drastic change human beings have made to their environment.”

Harsh nighttime light alters breeding rituals of frogs and toads, kills millions of sea turtle hatchlings by drawing them away from the ocean and destroys millions of birds by disrupting their migration patterns and hunting skills. And if you’ve ever seen your porch light at night, you know what it does to insects. 

But the effects on humans could be nearly as bad, the association states. Artificial light disrupts our melatonin production, which affects our sleep and may even be a factor in causing diabetes, obesity and mental health issues. Studies show that places lit at night are increasing by 7% around the world every year. Dalton calls that “terrifying.” 

LED lights, once hailed as the saviors of energy conservation, are a big culprit, said Richard O’Brien, communications coordinator for the Colorado chapter of the dark-sky association, a volunteer position. 

LED lights do help reduce the amount of electricity consumed, he said, but they also encourage people to use “extreme over-lighting” that gives off the harsh, blue glow blamed for health problems associated with artificial light, rather than the softer, orange-white color now favored by both the dark-sky and American Medical associations.

These problems are easily fixed: Most new LED lighting now comes in those softer colors at no extra cost. 

The brighter LED lights may have also increased awareness about light pollution. 

“As cities install new LED streetlights, it has sometimes made big headlines as city residents get angry about the change,” O’Brien said. “In a few places, there have been lawsuits over new LED streetlights…the light pollution problem in the US has become exponentially worse, resulting in a much larger percentage of people who are interested in conservation.”

The rise in interest among small towns in Colorado may have more to do with conservation instead of tourism, said Ryan Parker, a real estate agent and president of the Colorado dark-skies chapter. As more people move to our state, commuters looking for cheaper housing have overwhelmed nearby towns. Some towns, like Severance, have welcomed the change, and others have turned into mid-sized cities, such as Firestone, Frederick and Dacono.

Read more Colorado Sun stories about inspiring Coloradans.

“But small towns in Colorado also recognize that they are losing the little towns they loved,” said Parker, who grew up on a Colorado farm. “This is a way to keep their towns small.”

Those small towns do welcome the tourism that could follow a designation, Parker said, and the skies are there waiting for them to be seen again. But those dark skies are also a return to values that he worries are lost to the non-natives moving here in droves. 

“People are surprised to learn I’m a conservative. I believe in preserving what God gave us,” Parker said. “A dark sky is the one thing that connects us with our existence.”

If those types of pleas fail to inspire, well, there’s always legislation, and both the dark-sky association and the Colorado chapters have plans to push public policy into shielding lights, softening harsh lighting and reducing the amount of light in public places such as parks and government buildings. Though Dalton did acknowledge there aren’t many policy changes in many states, Parker said he hoped to approach the state legislature next year, and the dark-sky association will continue to lobby for changes on a national and international level.

Dalton said this could make us and our ecosystems healthier, but it could make our streets safer as well. Harsh light prevents drivers from seeing clearly at night and makes it hard to see when residents do hit a dark spot. 

“A common misconception is we’re trying to turn off all the lights,” Dalton said, “but we recognize that’s not feasible. We are trying to improve upon our understanding of lighting and how it affects our environment.”

As the word spreads, policy may follow, but in the meantime, more may flock to places that preserve the night sky. Liz Law-Evans and her husband, John, both want to go back to Jackson, even in the colder months. 

“I gave away an old telescope,” John said, “but now I want to get a new one.”

On her patrols at night now, Brandenburg isn’t telling people as often to respect the quiet hours in the campgrounds at Jackson Lake. Instead, she’s nudging them to turn off their lanterns. 

“There’s an opportunity to see the Milky Way,” Brandenburg said. “You just don’t get to see that anymore.”

Rising Sun