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Mountain News: Dark skies group takes case for Milky Way to valley ranches

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WESTCLIFFE, Colo. – Custer County

veers libertarian in its politics, reliably voting Republican and, in a general way, shunning regulation.

But in outdoor lighting restrictions, it's exceptional. Two of the county's three small towns — located in the Wet Mountain Valley about three hours southwest of Denver — have ordinances that sharply limit light pollution and light trespass. That work has made the towns a destination for people who want specifically to see a sky of glittering stars and something increasingly unattainable in urban areas: a view of the Milky Way.

Now, dark-sky proponents are seeking similar regulations to govern unincorporated areas. Already, some of the familiar arguments have been raised. At a recent meeting of county commissioners covered by the Wet Mountain Tribune, one rancher said he needed the light in his yard to serve as a beacon when it was snowing.

Jim Bradburn, the president of Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley, a non-profit, says he thinks he and other advocates will prevail over coming months. Despite the objections of government interference in private affairs, he says there are just too many winners in this case.

The local tourist industry gains with its expanded claim for dark skies, he says. Ranchers will get more lumens on the ground, where they are useful, and not in the sky. And the local electrical co-operative, San Isabel Electric, can get more efficient use of its product.

You have to want to go to the Wet Mountain Valley to get there. It's an hour from an interstate highway. The low-rising Wet Mountains define the valley's eastern flanks, and to the west the Sangre de Cristo Range rises sharply to 14,000 feet (4,267 metres) and above.

Westcliffe, the county seat, and Silver Cliff sit cheek by jowl, together boasting 1,200 residents. Outlying are ranch lands. If the valley were closer to a city or a major highway, it probably would have been subdivided long ago.

But ranchers themselves in the 1970s chose to make subdividing into ranchettes just a little harder than elsewhere in Colorado. The minimum size is 80 acres (32 hectares) on the valley floor — more than double what is allowed in most of rural Colorado — and 50 acres (20 hectares) in the more wooded Wet Mountains. It was an agricultural valley that remains agricultural. The result is that lights don't dominate the landscape, blotting out the stars.

"It's pretty amazing when you see it for the first time," says Bradburn of the night sky. "When people come here, they are just flabbergasted by the Milky Way."

Bradburn's organization first took aim at the two towns. It took about seven years from the start when, he says, the common reaction was: "Don't tell me what to do."

Instead of arguing the impact to neighbours who wanted to see the dark sky, he made an economic argument: Do this, and we can get designated as a dark-sky community — which will lead to more tourists.

"Which is exactly what has happened," he says. Motel and bed-and-breakfast operators have plentiful anecdotal evidence from customers that they came to see at night what they can't at home.

The dark-sky business has been helped by a host of national and regional reports. Westcliffe and Silver Cliff were in the New York Times and USA Today as well as CNN and NBC, among many others.

Smoothing the way in the two towns was an offer by Dark Skies Inc. to help pay for the switching out of offending lights that pointed skyward. Contributions augmented by a 10-per-cent match from a community fund have yielded $23,000 in the last two years. The money is used to defray implementation costs such as a light fixture on a school that was replaced with a hooded fixture, to spread the light to the ground.

One of Bradburn's arguments seeks to leverage the support of San Isabel Electric, the electrical provider, which actually owns the lights on the ranches. If lower-energy LED lights can be installed and the light deployed effectively to the ground, not the sky, less power will be needed. That means the electrical co-operative can serve more customers (technically co-op members) with the same amount of electricity. That means it spends less on upgrading infrastructure to handle larger volumes of electricity.

This would produce more profit to the electrical co-op and its members, including the ranchers, more useful light for the ranchers, and less light pollution to sully the dark sky, he says.

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