Going dark: State, local officials working to protect night sky over Grand County | SkyHiNews.com

Going dark: State, local officials working to protect night sky over Grand County

A view of the Milky Way in Rocky Mountain National Park. The park is in the process of changing out all of its exterior lights to be more Dark Sky friendly.
Courtesy NPS

Though there are billions of stars in the sky, it’s becoming harder and harder to enjoy viewing them thanks to the increasing issue of light pollution. However, local and state officials are hoping to address the concern head on.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jared Polis issued a proclamation that announced June as the state’s first official Dark Sky Month, which aims to highlight the importance of maintaining a nighttime environment and the negative effects of light pollution.

Dark Sky initiatives typically focus on limiting light pollution, particularly by regulating outdoor lighting. The more obvious benefits of these initiatives are to support the natural beauty of the sky and, as Polis’ proclamation states, to protect the “feelings of wonder and awe” inspired by the sky that may encourage an interest in science and nature.

The desire to maintain natural beauty is also one of the reasons why the towns of Fraser and Winter Park support becoming Dark Sky communities.

“There are a lot of people who really take enjoyment from the astronomy you can see from Fraser and we definitely want to keep that going,” said Fraser’s assistant town manager Michael Brack.

Fraser’s town code adopted Dark Sky compliant street and outdoor lighting requirements in 2012 and since then the town has also replaced all the street lights and holiday lights with LED bulbs, which are more energy efficient and reduce light pollution.

Brack said implementing Dark Sky initiatives in Fraser makes sense because of the community’s focus on sustainability and outdoor recreation.

“Sustainability is a huge initiative for Fraser, not only as far as lowering our footprint in our environment, but encouraging being courteous to the outdoors and adventure endeavors,” he said.   

Winter Park town planner Mara Owen echoed Brack, saying implementing Dark Sky measures will help protect the environment that makes Winter Park unique.

“It goes back to being a community that lives with our environment,” Owen said. “Unlike a lot of places, we are not separate from the environment.”

Currently, Winter Park does not have Dark Sky compliance requirements, but does suggest developers use Dark Sky compliant lighting in its design guidelines, and the Imagine Winter Park town master plan includes the aspiration of becoming a Dark Sky community.

Owen said the town is undergoing a retooling of the unified development code, which regulates all new buildings in town, and hopes to include more specific requirements in that document.

“We’d really like to move toward an ordinance,” she said. “Having an exact idea what we want for Dark Sky and how we think that would work best in town is something we’re actively working on. (….) When we’re doing the code, it probably makes the most sense to adopt (an ordinance) with it.”

Winter Park is also planning to follow Fraser’s footsteps in upgrading street and outdoor lighting to LED bulbs, but since the town is currently working on a downtown master plan, the change will likely come after the plan is finalized.

One of the best spots to stargaze in Grand County is in Rocky Mountain National Park, which offers specific astronomy events.
Courtesy NPS

Aside from the aesthetic benefits of Dark Sky policies, the International Dark-Sky Association, the recognized authority on light pollution, reports that there are environmental and economic benefits as well.

The organization estimates that around 35% of outdoor lighting is wasted, which is equivalent to roughly $3 billion of lost energy each year. Policies like Fraser’s town code, which specifies that outdoor lights must not emit light above a horizontal plane, and using the more efficient LED bulbs help reduce this light waste.

Mountain Parks Electric also offers energy efficiency rebates for using LED bulbs, for both residents and commercial businesses.

It’s also not just humans that benefit from Dark Sky policies, but animals. The International Dark-Sky Association states light pollution hurts the approximately 70% of animals who are nocturnal and can confuse species that are guided by natural light.

According to the National Park Service, natural light cycles are necessary for the survival of all plant and animal species. Natural light cycles help regulate circadian rhythms and natural darkness can be advantageous to health by lowering blood pressure and stress levels.

Luckily, in Grand County there are still places where stargazers can get great views, including at Rocky Mountain National Park, which offers both specific astronomy events and places to set up alone, as well as Devil’s Thumb Ranch.

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