San Miguel County is nestled in one of the darkest places on the planet. In fact, according to Norwood resident and retired scientist Bob Grossman, it’s “as dark as the Gobi Desert.” Grossman, a local proponent for creating a new Dark Sky Reserve in the county, appeared Thursday morning before the County Planning Commission with fellow Norwood Dark Sky advocate Creighton “Woody” Wood and Jen Stuebner (pronounced Steebner) representing the Western Dark Sky Alliance of Nucla-Naturita. Their presentation was simple: Keep the skies over San Miguel County dark. The commission’s role would be to update current exterior lighting regulations in the county Land Use Code (LUC). The proposed new reserve would be called the San Miguel River Basin Dark Sky Reserve and could potentially include all of San Miguel County and Montrose County west of the Uncompahgre Plateau.
Being able to see the stars at night, said county planning director Kaye Simonson, “is a really treasured thing here and in the West, in general.”
Exterior lighting that casts light up or sideways, or worse, is illuminated all night long is the bane of Dark Sky supporters. The current lighting regulations consist of a single sentence in the LUC under policies addressing scenic quality.
“Provisions requiring shielding of exterior lighting to prevent direct visibility of light bulbs from off-site, directing of all exterior lighting toward either the ground or the surface of a building and prohibiting high intensity sodium vapor and similar lighting. Period,” said Simonson.
The towns of Norwood and Ridgway are currently designated Dark Sky communities. In a slide indicating satellite images of nighttime lights — or lack thereof — Grossman pointed out that should Telluride and Mountain Village also earn those designations, the appeal as a destination for star-starved tourists, as well as professional and amateur astronomers, would be notable.
“Telluride and Mountain Village are of the same level of darkness as Nucla and Naturita whose joint application is currently under review for a Dark Sky Community designation by IDA (International Dark-Sky Association),” Grossman wrote. “If Telluride and Mountain Village also were designated then it is likely that this area, including Ridgway, will be the highest concentration of Dark Sky Communities in the world. This would make the area a very high-profile tourist attraction.”
Stuebner reported that 80 percent of the world’s population living in more populated, light-polluted areas “can no longer see the Milky Way,” she said. “And so what we see happening is grandparents are bringing their grandkids to areas like this, to show them what they used to be able to see as children.”
The proposed reserve is vast, spanning nearly 2,213 square miles. Grossman said the group is working to create a nonprofit umbrella under which to coalesce their efforts and would look to form a board composed of current Dark Sky groups and representatives of the San Miguel and Montrose county governments, as well as any potential Telluride-Mountain Village members.
Tools used to create dark skies include regulations that could address lumens — the lower the better — lower color temperatures, downcast shading of lights, paring down nighttime light use to what is essential and avoiding decorative lights unless they merge with utility. Enforcement is a matter of writing guidelines into local building codes. Any citizen complaints, Grossman said, would be taken up by Dark Sky volunteers with a bent toward education instead of punitive responses.
Norwood Town Administrator Patty Grafmyer said that Norwood’s standards for lighting were a good template for any county revisions. The county’s recently completed sheriff’s office annex in Norwood was a case in point as the county’s contractor for the project worked closely with Norwood officials.
“If we can do it, you can do it,” Grafmyer said. “It is relatively easy to come up with a good lighting plan. And, boy, the sheriff's office really did.”
It’s a too-bright world and the Colorado plateau is among a shrinking group of areas that afford sparkling nighttime skies. Other groups working to create Dark Sky reserves are near Crestone and in southeast Utah, Stuebner said.
“We could definitely connect all of southern Colorado, over to Utah and just build this reserve larger and larger,” she said. “Dr. John Barentine, who is managing International Dark-Sky Association, said at one point that other than Alaska and some Pacific islands that our US territories … this area, the southwest Nevada, southern Utah, northern Arizona, New Mexico, the Colorado Plateau area … are about the last stab for this level of darkness in the United States, so we feel it's really important to protect it if we can.”
“This is one of the darkest areas in the world,” he said. “This is as dark as the Gobi Desert. This is maybe not the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but is on that scale. It’s as dark as you can get where people live.”
Commission member Toby Brown expressed enthusiasm and support for the venture.
“I love what these guys are doing,” Brown said. “There's a template for this. It's not particularly onerous for developers. It makes sense. And it's like preserving our natural habitat. We have an opportunity out there we should, I think, jump in as thoroughly as we can and get it going before we miss the opportunity.”
Grossman said his group would be more than willing to assist in any way possible, and noted that the Dark Sky movement is growing in numbers and getting support from the state’s top leaders.
“There is a push in Colorado, in general,” Grossman said. “The state has declared June Colorado Dark Sky Month. We have (around eight) Dark Sky communities now in Colorado and more are applying. Paonia has applied, and Crestone is going to apply. And so there is kind of a movement within our state, which is great. And we have the governor who is supporting it. And I know Senator (Michael) Bennet supports it. So we have momentum, and we do have support.”
Simonson said she and county planning staff could craft some proposed lighting guidelines by June, in time for Dark Sky Month in Colorado.