Preserving the dark

A walk down Main Street after a sunset in Westcliffe is vacant of the day’s small town bustle. ‘Closed’ signs line the sidewalks where locals and vacationers slip in and out of rustic shops and a few small restaurants. Even the neighboring bed and breakfast and liquor store are noticeably still on a summer’s night. Down a few blocks, past the grocery store and bowling alley is an open field that seems to eventually reach the base of the mountains. The street lights stop and it’s dark. Actually, one of the darkest places in the world.

Westcliffe and its neighbor Silver Cliff have been making changes to local ordinances and the ranching community’s culture over the past 15 years to prevent light pollution and preserve the now too uncommon dark skies.

One hundred years ago light pollution didn’t exist. Most everyone could look toward the moon at night and into the rest of the universe and see a nightscape comparable to what inspired Van Gogh. But as population and cities grew and technology improved more outdoor lighting appeared. All of that lighting is usually misdirected and causes skyglow, or a brightening of the night sky.

Westcliffe’s dark sky over the High Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival in July. The lines that appear in the sky are “shooting” stars. Photo by Malissa Ahlin

Today, light pollution is growing at a rate of 4 percent, according to International Dark Sky Association, and has even been cited as an environmental problem. Migrating birds can stray from their course because of city lights and bugs are drawn toward artificial light — which can disrupt food chains.

For the most part, all of that light pollution is unnecessary and easy to fix.

“You know all those pretty lights you see when you’re flying over land?” Jim Bradburn, current Wet Mountain valley group Dark Skies, Inc. president, asked me during a recent phone call.

It can be avoided, he said. The city lights that form mesmerizing grids at night are pretty, yes. But not practical.

Dark-sky friendly lighting reduces glare and light trespassing. Bradburn describes unfriendly lighting as blasters, which were, until recently, not uncommon for Custer County because there is such a prominent ranching community. Bright outdoor lighting almost seems like a necessity near a big barn.

It’s easy to minimize light pollution from the blasters without compromising light, Bradburn said. Preventing light pollution requires redirecting the light. So, most of the lights seen around Westcliffe and Silver Cliff are shielded so that the light is very directional and only shines down.

In the past year, the two cities have been working to change local ordinances. It was the last step of becoming an official International Dark Sky Association dark-sky community

In March, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff received the designation, but the award, which has only been given to nine other communities around the world, has been 15 years in the making.

“‘I’ve never seen so many stars! It’s incredible!’ Many have seen their first (maybe only) falling ‘star’ from our valley.” Betsy Banks, Custer County resident, in her supporting letter.

IDA awards parks and reserves as well. But the designation as a dark-sky community requires the involvement of local government to revise light ordinances in addition to education and citizen support.

In 1999, Smokey Jack, the first president of the Wetmore group Dark Skies, Inc., struck a deal with the West Custer County Hospital District to use outdoor lighting that protected the area’s night sky from light pollution. She realized that the hospital might attract other businesses and national franchises that don’t take light pollution into consideration. That sparked a movement that eventually led to the designation, but she was unable to see the end result. Jack passed away in 2004.

For the past decade and a half the organization has taken on several other projects like Jack’s to help cut down on light pollution. From the school district to Family Dollar to ranches, Dark Skies, Inc., has received enough money to help switch out outdoor lighting in various spots around the county to fixtures that keep unneeded light out of the skies.

The light ordinances in both towns, effective in December 2014 for Westcliffe and February 2015 for Silver Cliff, dictates that all “outdoor lighting shall be shielded so that direct light from the fixture does not trespass on neighboring property.”

The IDA application requires ordinances that minimize glare and light pollution. It was the most time-consuming part of the IDA application, Bradburn said.

“Any and all nuisances caused by adverse effect of manmade light, including but not limited to glare, light trespass, sky glow, visual clutter, and wasted energy due to excessive or unnecessary lighting; or artificial light that unnecessarily diminishes the ability to view the night sky or is disruptive to flora and fauna,” the Silver Cliff ordinance reads. “Highway, neighborhood street, and property lighting shall conform to the ordinance of the Town of Silver Cliff as set forth, and the International Dark-Sky Association conformities.”

The Westcliffe ordinance is very similar.

“I started arguing that we just need to stop being the police and start being educators.” – Jim Bradburn, Dark Skies, Inc., president

Getting to the point of restricting how residents could use their lights wasn’t easy, however.

Bradburn first joined the Wetmore dark skies group in 2005. At the time he didn’t like the direction the group was going.

“I thought it was more in-your-face tree-hugging kind of deal,” he said.

The group seemed to be more like the light police than the dark sky preservers. And that was important, he said, because the people who live in Custer County “don’t see anything wrong with having these big blasters outside.”

Many of the residents are very practical. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. So naturally, there was a resistance to what Dark Skies, Inc., was trying to accomplish.

“I started arguing that we just need to stop being the police and start being educators,” Bradburn said. “Our whole club turned around.”

When residents would come to the organization about a neighbor with blasters, the organization would encourage the resident go and talk to their neighbor instead of the organization, like it would have done in the past.

The organization focused on education by talking to elementary students and hosting art contests. They also kept up awareness by buying ads in the local paper, and made the argument that it would be an economic draw.

So far, the designation is paying off. Bradburn said people are coming to see just how dark the skies really are, and it’s helped build community.

Dark Skies, Inc.’s newest project is an observatory deck for when the awe of the night sky wears off and you need to be a little bit closer to space. Bradburn has donated a telescope.

Airglow, which is produced by chemical reactions in the atmosphere about 90 km in the sky, is easily picked up by cameras. Photographer Malissa Ahlin said its the most she’s ever seen. Unlike the Northern Lights, it can be seen from all over the world. Photo by Malissa Ahlin

Local resident Steve Gunnels has lived in Custer County for the past 10 years, but didn’t realize what a gem the skies were until world renowned astronomers visiting his home commented on how great they are.

Gunnels has made a career out of designing giant telescopes. He’s contributed to the design of five successful telescopes. Most recently he contributed to the design of the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will have 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Telescope.

Many of these giant telescopes are located in the Atacoma Desert in Northern Chile where conditions are best for giant telescopes to take photographs. The climate is much drier than the Wet Mountain Valley, there are fewer clouds and less light pollution from surrounding areas. Having seen a world-class playground for the most powerful telescopes sets standards pretty high.

“I work with some of the world’s top professional astronomers and two of them have visited my home here in the Westcliffe area,” Gunnels wrote in his email of support for the IDA designation application. “They have commented on how dark and clear our skies are, and quite good for astronomical observing.”

To design giant telescopes Gunnels said you don’t really need to know about astronomy, but he found himself intrigued because he was constantly working with astronomers. So, when he was living in Southern California he took a class, and it has paid off. Ameteur astronomy is popular in Custer County.

“Ameteur astronomers are amazing,” Gunnels said. “They are the most serious amateurs of any group.”

The Milky Way above Westcliffe. Photo by Malissa Ahlin.

Being an ameteur is easy in Westcliffe. It’s easy to spot the Milky Way and DSLR cameras, with the right lens, have no problem picking up the Andromeda galaxy on a clear night if you know where to look. Cameras also pick up an aurora-like light called airglow, which is produced by chemical reactions in the atmosphere about 90 km in the sky. Unlike the Northern Lights, it can be seen from all over the world.

“It’s quite impressive that the sky is dark enough here and enough enthusiasm to build a deck here,” Gunnels said.

But for many, especially for visitors, a sleeping bag  under the stars is the best view. The skies around Westcliffe are dark enough that it is easy to spot satellites orbiting Earth at high speeds and shooting stars are only difficult to spot because of how many stars are visible in the sky. You know that the sky is infinite, but to see it is, in every sense of the word, awesome.

“I am a resident of the Wet Mountain Valley, living a few miles north of the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff. We also own property that friends and family choose to camp on in summer months. The most frequent comment we hear from campers is about the night sky. ‘I’ve never seen so many stars! It’s incredible!’ Many have seen their first (maybe only) falling ‘star’ from our valley,” local resident Betsy Banks wrote in her letter. “They want to know more about constellations and planets. Children’s questions begin stories and discussions that bring us all closer together, strengthening our family and friendships.”

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