by Kairina Danforth
Eighty percent of the people in the world today will never see the Milky Way from their homes.
We are part of the fortunate few who do. Our documented dark sky overhead offers a truly exceptional level of darkness. In fact, the dark sky over the Town of Crestone and the adjacent Baca Grande subdivision is one of the most exceptionally dark skies in the Western US.
Continuing a journey begun by the Crestone Town Board of Trustees in 2004, the current Crestone Town Trustees are pursuing designation as an International Dark Sky Community.
Currently there are only 22 internationally designated dark sky communities in the world, with 16 of the 22 located in the US. The International Dark Sky Association was founded in 1988 and is dedicated to protecting and preserving exceptionally dark skies from artificial light pollution.
It is the recognized authority for night sky protection and has taken the lead in identifying and publicizing the negative impacts of artificial light at night on human health, wildlife, vegetation and climate change. Its public outreach efforts provide solutions, quality education and pro- grams across the US and throughout the world to educate the public and the policy makers about night sky stewardship. They serve to empower us all with the tools and resources to help protect and preserve our dark sky. Their program offers different kinds of designations, including a community, a park, a place, a sanctuary, and a reserve. The Dark Sky accreditation requires robust community support and also requires an exceptionally high level of documented darkness. International Dark Sky designation follows a rigorous application process. Attesting to the rigorous requirement process is the fact that since 1988 only 22 communities worldwide have received this designation.
Furthering such designation for Crestone is the Colorado College planned creation of a local research observatory and planetarium. Their planning includes a robotic telescope capable of being managed remotely from their Colorado Springs campus as well as their local Baca campus. Their telescope will also enable automated management. The planetarium will be similar in design to that of Chaco Canyon and will provide circular seating to be able to lean back and view our starry sky, a sundial and other features relating to the solstice and equinox. Colorado College currently has two astronomy professors and plans to add an additional astronomer and additional classroom offerings, such as “Cultural Astronomy of the Southwest.” They will involve our community in this initiative and are interested in partnering with our Crestone Charter School. Imperative to our successful dark sky designation application is curriculum support from the Crestone Charter School. This support can take any of various forms that will help our young people learn what a precious natural re- source is our night sky heritage. Dark Sky designation is based on stringent outdoor lighting standards and innovative community outreach. The continuing ability to experience the dark sky, which is the result, provides young and old alike perspective, inspiration and leads us to reflect on our humanity and place in the universe. Our residents believed in 2004, and continue steadfastly to believe today, that protecting the quality of the night sky and reducing light pollution is an important
Night skies are a connection between all humans and all time.
Night skies have been relied upon for timekeeping, worship, navigation, landscape recognition, and storytelling, and yet do not enjoy universal protection. The cultural significance of astronomy in myths, legends and science is disappearing as those areas of the world which today en- joy exceptionally dark skies are being lost as more and more people bring with them increasing light pollution. Artificial light at night is not sim- ply a nuisance but a real concern for human health. The dark night communicates something fundamental to our human biology. Circadian rhythm controls 10-15% of our genes. Research shows light pollution affects all of our wildlife and our vegetation as well. Changes have been recorded in feeding and breeding behavior in response to nighttime light pollution. In fact, the biological world is organized largely by light. We are just now beginning to understand the nocturnality of entire ecosystems, from the smallest plant to the largest creature.
Ours is a pristine part of Colorado, a place of majestic beauty by day and, by night, one of the darkest places in the west, also a place which is going to experience a dramatic increase in growth in the next few years. If we fail to protect our valley communities and surrounding protected lands with their exceptional dark skies now, it may be too late as the future brings more and more people and more and more light pollution with them. As a result of increasing urbanization and population growth, our valley is one of the last remaining sanctuaries of nearly pristine dark night sky, particularly in its large areas of federally protect- ed public lands. Preserving the darkness of this remarkable sanctuary is essential to support these natural ecosystems and wilderness areas. Protecting our dark night sky helps preserve the natural scenic, historic, fish and wildlife, recreational value of our valley. Not protecting the night sky will destroy the habitat of many animals and, with that, the ability of the intricate web of nature to sustain itself.
Arising from the Town’s initiative to become designated as a dark sky community, the Town is partnering with the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, the Bureau of Land Management, the surrounding Rio Grande National Forest and other surrounding, nearly pristine dark sky areas including the Orient Land Trust, the Westcliffe Dark Sky Community, surrounding West Mountain National Forest and part of the surrounding Custer County area, a large portion of Huerfano County and the San Isabel Nation- al Forest and John Milton’s Way of Nature sanctuary. The resulting coalition, dedicated to habitat stewardship, is preparing an application to become an accredited International Dark Sky Reserve. It is centered around the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area and has accordingly named itself the Sangre de Cristo International Dark Sky Reserve. San Luis Valley Great Outdoors (SLVGO) is coordinating the activity of the emerging Sangre de Cristo Reserve. The Reserve designation is the highest and most coveted award bestowed by the International Dark Sky Association. There are currently only thirteen designated Dark Sky Re- serves in the world: one in the US (the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve), one in Canada, one in Africa and ten in Europe.
On July 25 at 8pm, the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and the Town of Crestone will present a program which will interpret the area’s brilliant and incredibly dark Summer sky. Included will be information about the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve’s recent designation as an International Dark Sky Park. Town of Crestone personnel will describe the Town’s commitment to control the growth of artificial light pollution and the preservation of its equally dark nighttime environment as it continues its journey to become designated as an International Dark Sky Community. The collaborative efforts to establish a Sangre de Cristo International Dark Sky Reserve will also be included in the program. The event will take place at the Baca National Wildlife Refuge Head- quarters. Light refreshments will be provided by the Town of Crestone. Crestone-Baca residents are urged to attend and to learn how each may join in the preservation of their community’s incredibly dark skies.
It seems that, perhaps by chance, our small gateway community is being offered an opportunity to become a wayshower for our valley to recognize, protect and preserve its exceptional dark skies, and also to communicate that awe and wonder to our young people through local school curriculum and nighttime experiences. A rising tide lifts all boats as our local valley communities begin to support dark sky preservation and as individuals we can no longer take for granted something each of us is being blessed with—every night—when we look up at our starry sky.