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Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Shining a light on Dark Sky Communities

Our loss of “dark skies” reminds me of the adage about the frog in the boiling pot.

Throw the unsuspecting cold-blooded amphibian in when the water is cool, slowly turn up the heat and the frog will never realize it’s being boiled alive.

That’s what has happened with our ability to see the heavens at night.

Once upon a time we could see a night sky so peppered with stars that it looked like a twinkling sandy beach streaked with galaxies far, far away. After World War II, with the growth of suburbs, light pollution grew steadily, and we’ve just begun to realize that we’ve blotted out the Milky Way.

Tom Beckett, Salt Lake City attorney and Dark-Sky advocate/educator, guides a raft through Hell’s Half Mile on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. The focus of these trips is to see the celestial panorama that no longer exists in most of the country because of light pollution.

Now most people must travel hundreds of miles to see an unspoiled celestial show.

Fortunately, advocates of dark-sky preservation have been hard at work raising awareness of our loss and designating certain areas in the world official Dark Sky Parks and Communities.

San Diego County residents are luckier than many.

In January, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Anza-Borrego Desert State Park as an International Dark Sky Park. The town of Borrego Springs, surrounded by the park, achieved Dark Sky Community status in 2009. These are the only official Dark-Sky areas in California.

To earn a Dark-Sky designation, communities “must be the darkest possible, with only a small amount of light pollution tolerated,” according to the association.

It means communities or areas must adopt lighting requirements and educate residents.

Besides the special designation and the aesthetics, Dark Sky communities have found there are economic benefits to offering visitors a spectacular starry panorama.

“We have found that when tourists go to a national park to see a dark sky, they will spend two nights in a hotel instead of one or no nights, and they will spend more money,” explains Tom Becket, a Salt Lake City attorney who is well versed in the topic. Beckett is the president of the board at Clark Planetarium, founder of its stargazing program, and in the summer, is a starguide for Holiday River Expeditions. The company offers river rafting trips designed especially to bring travelers to Dark Sky areas. 

“We are like a zoo,” adds Beckett. “The night sky is an endangered species.”

The newest Dark Sky area is a 1,400-square-mile stretch of unspoiled wilderness in central Idaho. Called Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, it is the first International Dark Sky Reserve in this country.

“It took more than two decades of work by local leaders to manage and reduce the impact of light pollution,” according to the association. The reserve includes the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, 731,000 acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service where visitors can hike, fish, rock climb and go whitewater rafting.

There are only 12 such reserves worldwide, and this piece of Idaho is the third-largest. It has earned “Gold Tier” status, the highest ranking for quality of the night sky.

Trips into areas like these are becoming more popular, Beckett says.

“We’ve had ecotourism for a while, and now we have astrotourism. People show up on river trips, look at the sky, and say ‘What’s that?’ In 20 years, we’ll go to Mars, but for time being, we’re going to Dark Sky places.”

Visit International Dark Sky Association at http://www.darksky.org/; and Holiday River Expeditions at https://www.bikeraft.com/. For more photos and a graphic illustrating the growth of light pollution in the United States since the 1950s, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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