Those who live in urban areas inhabit a radically different night-time reality than those living far from city lights. Gaze up at the night sky from a metropolis like New York City and you’re greeted with a dusty glow punctured by a few bright pin-prick stars. Do the same from a spot only 100 miles away and the Milky Way is visible as a thick ribbon stretching across a night sky swimming in stars.
Humanity has been steadily polluting the night skies since the advent of electric lights in the late 19th century, but where America’s last truly dark night skies still flourish—mostly in rural, western towns—communities are fighting to keep it that way. They’re enacting policies that protect their night skies from the bleeding glow of artificial lights, while at the same time protecting the plants and animals that rely on darkness. Astro-tourism is helping these communities by attracting dark sky enthusiasts from across the country. After decades of being carelessly wiped out, darkness is becoming a precious natural resource.
Today, it’s estimated that more than 99 percent of the U.S. and European populations live under artificially bright night skies. While there’s still no universally accepted definition for light pollution, John Barentine, director of public policy at the International Dark Association (IDA), calls it the “unintended, usually negative, consequence of the use of artificial light at night.” Stray light that’s reflected off the ground or sent directly upwards from fixtures that aren’t properly shielded brightens the night sky, obscuring our view of the stars.
The IDA, an organization that grants distinctions to communities that adhere to guidelines that preserve the night sky, got its start in the 1980s after two astronomers grew concerned about how artificial light was encroaching on their stellar views. The movement has been growing ever since. In 2001, Flagstaff, Arizona—which pioneered the world’s first lighting ordinance to preserve dark skies in the 1950s—became the first International Dark Sky Community.
Now, the IDA leads dark sky advocacy efforts worldwide, advising communities on the policies needed to acquire a dark sky distinction. There are now over 100 communities, parks, reserves, and sanctuaries around the world that have met IDA’s rigorous standards for an official Dark Sky Place—a location with formal protections to preserve, or improve, its nightscape.
Dark sky communities—one of only two IDA distinctions that focus on places people actually live—are cities and towns that adopt responsible lighting policies to keep light pollution to a minimum. Citizens from the growing suburbs to the most remote towns are waging battles in the name of darkness in town halls and online, urging local governments to make better lighting choices in order to protect their skies from becoming tainted by nearby sources of light pollution.
Barentine, who acts as the IDA’s main liaison to communities seeking a dark sky distinction, says there’s been a definite uptick in inquiries about IDA’s Dark Sky Place program in recent years. But major hurdles remain for many communities looking to attain a dark sky designation, evidenced by the fact that there are only about twenty Dark Sky Communities around the world. Fifteen of them are in the United States.
“People look at the requirements for the program and they see that it’s going to be a lot of work,” Barentine told me. “This is really about changing hearts and minds.”
IDA’s extensive application requires that would-be dark sky communities implement a comprehensive lighting policy, showcase their dedication to preserve dark skies by educating the populace, and demonstrate success in limiting light pollution by effectively implementing the local lighting code. This often requires the installation of shielded dark sky-friendly fixtures with a warmer color temperature, which prevent light from seeping into the sky. The process can often take years.
The places that have been designated, especially in recent years, have tended to be small rural communities in the West with populations on the order of hundreds to a few thousand, according to Barentine. One of the obvious challenges for dark sky advocates is how to get people to care about something they don’t know is missing.
As the spread of light pollution sets urban skies aglow, dark skies have become a point of pride for many small towns. Rural communities are also recognizing that dark sky designations can be translated into star-seeker tourism dollars.
“It’s all about quality of life,” Barentine told me. “Something that sets them apart from other communities in the region who don’t have the designation.”
Though considered a nascent industry, astro-tourism is essentially a clever rebranding of what we’ve been doing for ages—looking up towards an inky-black sky to take in the cosmos. Darkness seekers travel thousands of miles to witness the unspoiled cosmic spectacle.
The opportunity to play host to these visitors couldn’t come at a better time for many parts of rural America, where traditional jobs are drying up and younger people are migrating into cities. In the Colorado Plateau, one recent study estimated astro-tourism could pump $2.5 billion into local economies over a ten-year period.
One of those rural towns is Camp Verde, an out-of-the way spot in central Arizona that offers one of the best views of the Milky Way in the country. Inspired by the nearby Flagstaff, Camp Verde earned a dark sky community distinction in June. However, the town of 11,000 citizens first began implementing dark sky-preserving lighting ordinances about 20 years ago. To comply with the IDA’s standards, citizens worked arduously to swap out the bulk of the town’s old bright lights for low-lumen, warm-toned alternatives with motion sensor options. Within two years, all of the town’s exterior lights will be replaced with dark sky-friendly lighting.
With Camp Verde’s recent designation there are now four dark sky communities in Arizona, making it the densest aggregation of such official communities in the world.
The effort hasn’t been without controversy. Some residents of Camp Verde were unhappy at the idea of outdoor lighting policies restricting how they use their private property, according to Barentine. He argues that a lighting ordinance is similar to a noise ordinance, and it’s actually intended to protect private property owners, but obviously everyone doesn’t agree.
Despite a few dissenters, there was local support for the dark sky designation. Sebra Choe, the town’s economic development specialist, gathered 70 letters of support from residents, businesses, and local organizations, and the town council approved dark sky-lighting ordinance changes earlier this year. “We were able to take the project across the finish line within 1.5 years,” Choe told me.
Camp Verde now hopes to make their dark skies an integral part of the town’s culture. Within the next six months, a new program will recognize businesses that incorporate dark sky pride into their offerings. Local restaurants could offer a dark sky-themed menu item; wineries might suggest wine tasting under the stars. All this emphasis on becoming a destination for stargazing might just translate to tourism.
Since Camp Verde only just received its designation, it is difficult to say what it’ll mean for the town’s economy. However, officials have identified a few trends that look promising. According to the Lowell Observatory, Arizona observatories account for $250 million of revenue, attracting 40,000 out-of-state visitors each year. The Sedona Verde Valley Tourism Council, of which Camp Verde is a member, has identified “stargazing” as a top Google search driving traffic to their website. They anticipate at least 300 people will attend the inaugural Camp Verde Dark Sky festival come October, a celebration of Camp Verde’s ideal stargazing conditions.
While Camp Verde saw some resistance to becoming a Dark Sky Community, folks in Torrey, Utah were more welcoming to becoming dark sky-friendly. When the tiny town in central Utah, tucked between red sandstone monoliths, finally earned their distinction in January of this year, the residents celebrated.
“While those who came before us left us our dark night skies to love, now we leave a legacy to generations of future residents of this special place we proudly call home,” explained Torrey Mayor Scott Chestnut in a news statement after the announcement of the title. “We’ve often been accused of being ‘in the dark,’ but now we’re being honored for it!”
Mary Bendingsfield-Smith led the way when she moved to Torrey in 2015. On her very first night in her new home, she noticed a single streetlight shedding light on a row of cottonwood trees on her property, spoiling the view of the star-studded sky from her porch. “This is already a very dark place, but there’s this light shining on our trees,” she told me. “I wanted to fix that.”
She chatted with neighbors, dark sky advocates, and amateur astronomers to devise a crowdfunding campaign that would raise around $20,000 to replace old streetlights across the town. With the introduction of new fully shielded, dark sky-friendly light fixtures, Torrey would save more than $900 in lighting costs each year.
Not only is it saving money on lighting, the town is hoping to generate new revenue by playing host to some of the more than 1.3 million people who visit nearby Capitol Reef National Park, already a locale with a dark sky distinction which, as an official Dark Sky Park, is a huge draw for tourists. “People come here and they spend money here,” Bendingsfield-Smith told me. By virtue of being a nighttime activity, astro-tourism necessitates an overnight stay. “In order to see the skies you have to spend the night.”
And while the primary motivation of communities seeking Dark Sky distinctions might well be aesthetic or tourism-related, the return to more natural nights benefits the animal inhabitants of these areas as well.
When we do away with the predictable night-day rhythm, a wide array of life on Earth is disrupted. Salamanders, for instance, typically emerge from under leaf litter to forage after dusk. But in the presence of light, they’ll remain hidden for longer, emerging when less food is available. Beyond foraging behavior, light pollution affects how different creatures reproduce. Stray light can obscure fireflies flashing in their bioluminescent mating dance, and tree frogs are less likely to let out their mating call in brightly-lit areas.
And sea turtles have evolved to come to shore and lay their eggs. When hatchlings emerge from the sand, they crawl toward the brightest light over the horizon, following an instinct born out of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Throughout those years, this was the moon reflected on the ocean. Now, hatchlings are crawling toward the brightly lit hotels and condominiums that crowd the coast, a signal that had no precedent in their evolutionary history.
“A sea turtle hatchling that’s going away from the ocean is a dead sea turtle hatchling,” Travis Longcore, an urban ecologist at the University of Southern California, told me.
Our reckless lighting choices have essentially led us to turn our backs on ourselves and on the well-being of life around us. Thankfully, unlike other environmental woes, light pollution is relatively easy to remedy by simply using the right amount of light where and when it is needed. Communities in small pockets of the country taking matters into their own hands are a reason to hope.
Back in Torrey, Utah, Bendingfield-Smith, who fought for her town to become a designated Dark Sky community, looks at the stars above her home every single night. As night falls on a cloudless night, the sky is revealed to be brimming with stars, she says.
“The stars are so bright here, like you can reach your hand out and touch time,” she told me, referring to the eons-old light of distant stars and galaxies, which is clearly visible in the very dark sky.
“It just reminds us where we are, who we are, and that we’re just a small part of something a lot bigger than us.”