Dark Skies Ridgway

The local nightscape at a Dark Skies “star party” hosted by ROCC at Ridgway State Park last May, about two miles from downtown Ridgway. (Photo by Joyce Tanihara, Black Canyon Astronomical Society)

Inky-black nights and luminous starscapes are precious commodities in this hyper-illuminated world, and an increasing number of western communities are racing to preserve the dark by becoming Dark Sky communities.

Two towns in the Wet Mountain Valley, neighboring Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, became the first in Colorado to achieve certification by the International Dark Sky Association last year. Norwood achieved IDA certification earlier this year. And on Wednesday, Ridgway took an important step toward joining this elite group, when Town Council passed an “IDA-friendly” outdoor-lighting ordinance. The nonprofit Ridgway-Ouray Community Council, or ROCC, has been leading the charge when it comes to promoting local Dark Skies. Committee co-chair Val Szwarc, a resident of Log Hill, called Wednesday’s ordinance “a major accomplishment toward the goal of IDA- designation.”

(The communities of Paonia, Crestone and Estes Park are also pursuing IDA designation. Other parks and monuments around the state either already-designated or currently seeking Dark Sky status, Szwarc said, “include Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado National Monument and Rocky Mountain National Park.”)

Szwarc was pleased that Wednesday’s ordinance was officially adopted — but as he pointed out, “the lighting in Ridgway’s new streetscape was Dark Sky-friendly. That was the motivation for my involvement: they were mostly already there.” What is more, out of “all of the Planning Commission and Town Council meetings that have discussed IDA Dark Sky designation, no one from the business community, or any private citizens, have made any negative comments” about it.

Indeed, several members of the public thanked Town Council Wednesday for its support of the lighting ordinance, which officially goes into effect Oct. 25, or 30 days following its passage.

A number of other criteria “remain to be satisfied” for IDA-certification, Szwarc said, including letters of support from key groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Ouray County Commissioners and Ridgway Town Council Ouray (which pledged to write such a letter Wednesday).

Public outreach is also required for the IDA’s okay: ROCC held two Dark Sky “star parties” last year, and another in May at Ridgway State Park. The nonprofit also screened a free documentary, “Saving the Dark” — followed by a Q&A about Dark Sky certification, and the effects of dark skies on the health of migrating birds, wildlife, and even humans — for a group of about 70 members of the community at the Sherbino Theater earlier this year.

As you might expect, actual dark skies are a requirement for certification, something Ridgway not only has in abundance, but have actually been measured. “Our measurements are very comparable to Norwood’s,” Szwarc has said. “An astronomy ranger visiting from Black Canyon National Park told me the quality of the darkness just outside the high school is very similar to that of the Black Canyon.”

The next deadline for Dark Skies applicants is Nov. 25. Szwarc hopes to have everything in place for Ridgway’s certification by then. “If not, there’s another deadline early next year,” he said. Citizens and businesses wishing to “volunteer improvements” to their external lighting “to help protect the dark skies in southwest Colorado” can do the following, Szarc suggesed: upgrade external lights to fixtures “that direct all light downward,” use lightbulbs with a color temperature of 3,000 kelvin or less (this number is printed on LED bulbs), employ adaptive controls such as motion sensors, timers and dimmers and “use only the amount of light needed, at a brightness that is reasonable.” Szwarc invites anyone interested in learning more to contact him at vsszwarc@yahool.com. For complete information about the International Dark-Sky Association, go to darksky.org.